William J. Burns returns (again)

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 20, 2013

I don’t know whether there’s any kind of genuine “comeback” in progress, for the great real-life detectives, or I’m simply noticing mentions of them now and that’s all. But whatever the context, I was interested to see a familiar face at The Atlantic today, accompanying an article by Benjamin Welton titled The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called ‘America’s Sherlock Holmes.’

Executive summary and disclosure of the obvious: 1) the story is basically a brief survey of Burns’s career and musing on how its derailing contrasts with the continued popularity of  great-detective fiction, 2) I wrote about all of this at somewhat greater length in a recent book you may have heard of, and 3) nowhere is anything mentioned about the previous point in Welton’s article.

It’s certainly plausible that despite having plainly done a good deal of reading about Bill Burns, Mr. Welton has never heard of my own book, and that I simply need a better publicist. (Self: as soon as I can find someone who will work cheaper, you’re fired.) That said, I shall trust that the same benefit of the doubt will apply to the following supplementary footnotes, and that any resemblance to irritable sniping will be understood as entirely coincidental.

Going down the article from the start, off the top of my head I would point out the following (possibly very reasonable and/or editorially imposed) simplifications or other points of contention:

  1. It’s a very picky point, and doesn’t even involve Burns, but the statement that “the original book series first surfaced in 1887” is technically questionable in the context of Sherlock Holmes. A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887, but in the pages of Beeton’s Christmas Annual; I’m not sure offhand when the first book edition appeared but I will guess that it was some time after 1887.
  2. I’m not sure that William Hunt (or anyone else) characterized Burns as a literal “friend” of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt supported Burns’s advancement as a Secret Service operative, heartily, but I don’t recall a suggestion that he and Burns were ever more than acquaintances, socially.
  3. I would (and did) assign the compromising of Burns’s hero status to rather more than “one flawed investigation and changes in method in the field of detective work.”
  4. It’s not exactly inaccurate to say that Burns was “Born in Baltimore in 1861 but educated in Columbus, Ohio,” but it completely omits the childhood years he spent in Zanesville.
  5. The article also mysteriously skips the very first detective commission of Burns’s career investigating electoral fraud, as well as his brief tailoring career as part of “Burns & Son,” with the phrase “First, Burns hit the streets as an unofficial member of the Columbus Police Department (a position he enjoyed thanks to his father’s position as a part-time police commissioner), then he began working as a private detective under the tutelage of Thomas Furlong…” I’m not sure that his junior-woodchuck association with the Columbus PD involved much activity out on the streets, either, come to think of it.
  6. Okay, I have to check my own account here, but I got the impression that a number of years passed between Burns joining the Secret Service and resultant fame; a rather contrary impression is created by the phrase “Not long after joining the U.S. Secret Service, Burns became a star detective…”
  7. There may well be important information in the referenced work American Lightning, so perhaps I need to check that out, but based on  what I have read Welton certainly seems to be blurring a number of different events in his description of Burns’s work investigating San Francisco corruption. I’m pretty sure any work “undercover in… the forests of Oregon” would have taken place in an earlier, albeit similar, investigation in the Pacific Northwest; it’s debatable to say that San Francisco was entirely “rid of its corrupt government” in the immediate aftermath of Burns’s work there; and I’m pretty certain that unless the Times expressed very similar sentiments twice, its tribute to Burns as “the greatest detective… and perhaps the only really great detective… whom [America] has produced” was from “Apologies Due a Detective,” published after and primarily in reference to his pursuit of the McNamara brothers, which investigation had no direct connection to San Francisco that I can recall.
  8. As regards Burns’s investigation into the murder of Mary Phagan, I would argue that he wasn’t exactly “driven out of Georgia before his findings could sway the public’s opinion,” and to whatever extent he was it was beside the point: a jury had already convicted Frank; despite the absence of a large public outcry the the state’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment anyway; and while a lynch mob then carried out the original sentence on its own initiative, I believe that Burns’s arguments had been fairly well publicized by then and that, unfortunately, the lynch mob just didn’t care.
  9. While the details of the Teapot Dome sub-scandal that I dubbed “Wheelergate” are somewhat messy, I don’t know that I would describe the cause of Burns’s ousting from the Bureau of Investigation as “BOI agents… accused of trying to intimidate journalists critical of the Harding administration.” Senator Burton Wheeler, yes; journalists…? The accusation may well have been made, but I don’t recall it being central to Burns’s calling-on-the-carpet.
  10. Definitely find an odd characterization of Burns in this bit: “…by the mid-1920s, Burns’s type of detection—which placed a great emphasis on thorough research, interrogations, and undercover work—was being phased out in favor of a bolder, more technologically aggressive type of sleuthing. By the time of Prohibition, the descendants of Sherlock Holmes were busy using wiretap surveillance…” My own impression of Burns was that he was actually a fairly enthusiastic adoptee of “technologically aggressive sleuthing” himself, including wiretapping. William Pinkerton, by contrast, whether out of ethical qualms or stodginess or (I suspect at least in part) antipathy toward Burns opposed use of wiretapping by the profession. But I believe I recall reading of Burns even proudly demonstrating a “Detectaphone” to his friend Conan Doyle, in addition to later facing repeated controversy for his uses of similar technology.

As for whether or not “America’s willingness to brand him as the Great Detective’s Yankee equal serves as a testament not only to this country’s constant search for celebrity heroes, but also how badly humans want reality to mirror fiction—not the other way around,” well, I have my own takebut this is almost exclusively an area of opinion rather than fact. Those fuzzy-headed liberal social sciences, and all.

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