The strange cases of Henry Meyers

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 22, 2013

In the notes to his monumental graphic novel about the Whitechapel murders, From Hell, Alan Moore is compelled to comment more than once on “the odd way in which key names seem to recur throughout the history of murder.” This phenomenon is, probably, just coincidence, but it is certainly odd. And it isn’t just Moore. In my own researches into a century or so of detectives and their criminal adversaries, I was similarly unable to avoid noting a number of name-related connections. From time to time I will post about them, here, under the “name game” tag.

As a start, however, I’m not sure anything else in this category can approach the bizarre case, or as I’m fairly certain, cases, of Henry Meyers.

In William Hunt’s biography of William Burns, the author points to 1894 as a breakthrough year for the detective’s reputation. One of the investigations which, per Hunt, boosted Burns’s profile in that year involved Henry Meyers. A Chicago-based quack doctor, Meyers apparently attempted to branch out into more directly money-making frauds and try his hand at counterfeiting. This brought him into the sights of the Treasury’s Secret Service, and in particular its rising star William Burns, who shut down Meyers’s operation and seized his equipment in a nicely publicized raid.

At some point, during either my initial read of the biography or while reviewing my notes later, I recalled Burns’s great rivals the Pinkertons (also based in Chicago) sparring with a rogue of that same name. Indeed, my notes confirmed, some years previously William Pinkerton had directed efforts against a villainous doctor who had organized a “murder for profit” system, and this Chicago doctor named Henry was still active in 1894. I actually wrote in one of the early drafts of how Burns’s 1894 foiling of one of the Pinkertons’ old foes, right on their home turf of the Windy City, was an early score in their eventual long, bitter rivalry. There was just one problem, however. In re-checking dates and things, I noticed that that the man arrested by the Pinkertons was named Henry Meyer. No “s.”

At first I thought it was an error. I made a lot of notes. Checking the sources again, however, ruled that out, or at least ruled out its having been my error. I thought it might yet have been someone’s error; in doing a good deal of research one learns that such things do happen, even in well-researched books from major publishers. Indeed, the life and career of William Burns himself required extensive cross-checking to arrive at (what I hope is) an accurate chronology. Plus, of course, fudging of names is hardly unheard of, particularly among career lawbreakers; the difference between “Meyer” and “Meyers” seems more than possible to account for.

Except that, in the end, I finally concluded that it’s nonetheless most likely accounted for by their being two different men. After poking around and staring at the limited evidence available, I’m fairly certain that

  • Henry Meyer, fraudulent doctor of late-19th-century Chicago, busted by famous detective William Pinkerton for a “murder for profit” scheme, and
  • Henry Meyers, fraudulent doctor of late-19th-century Chicago, busted by famous detective (and rival of William Pinkerton) William Burns for counterfeiting,

are in no way connected other than by the multiple bizarre coincidences of their names, first and second professions, cities of residence, etc.

Strange world.

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