William J. Burns, America's "Sherlock Holmes", article in The National Cyclopædia of American Biography 1916
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BURNS, William John, detective, was born in Baltimore, Md., Oct. 19, 1861, son of Michael and Bridget (Trahey) Burns. While he was still a child his parents moved to Ohio, settling first at Zanesville and in 1873 at Columbus, where his father engaged in business as a merchant tailor. After a public school education William attended a business college in Columbus and then joined his father in the merchant tailoring business. But his remarkable talents soon pointed the way to a very different vocation. When his father became police commissioner of Columbus young Burns eagerly grasped the opportunity of gratifying his taste and exercising his talent for criminal investigation. Though he was never officially connected with the police department of Columbus he was for a time practically the brains of its detective branch, and time and again his unerring genius lighted the way for the perplexed police officials through the dark ages of seemingly impossible problems. His fame in this respect grew so quickly and widely that when the famous tally-sheet forgeries occurred in Ohio in 1885 and the methods of the best trained investigators resulted in absolute failure he was called upon to take up the investigation by the prosecuting attorney, Cyrus Huling. His efforts were crowned with complete success, and this achievement attracted so much notice that many of the largest corporations in Ohio eagerly sought his services as a detective. In the year 1889 Mr. Burns was asked to join the United States secret service, and was appointed to the headquarters at St. Louis, Mo. Five years later he was promoted to the Washington office. The United States secret service has charge of all kinds of crimes against the United States government, except those within the scope of the post office, which maintains its own detective service. Its work includes the pursuit of criminals in general, search for counterfeiters, investigations of customs frauds, defalcations in national banks, dishonesty of government employees—-in fact every kind of detective work required in the investigation of offenses against the Federal statutes. The advent of William J. Burns in the United States secret service marked the beginning of a notable epoch in its history. Never before, even in the picturesque days of the civil war, did the secret service attract so much public attention as it did when the mind of the remarkable detective set to work on its big problems, and never before outside of fiction was the public regaled with such brilliant feats of investigation as he accomplished. Even the dry newspaper accounts of his exploits read like the imaginative pages of Poe, Gaboriau and Conan Doyle.
Indeed, Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of fiction, never handled problems of such magnitude and nation-wide importance as did William J. Burns, the greatest detective of fact, and those he did handle were worked with more frills but less brilliancy. It is putting it mildly to say that William J. Burns was the star of the secret service; John E. Wilkie, the present head of the department, referred to him as the best detective he ever knew; and press and public have been practically unanimous in acclaiming him the greatest of all detectives. Many of the high cases handled by Burns are part of the history of the country. The celebrated Costa Rican case is one of these. In 1896 De Requesons, De Costa and others undertook to foment a revolution in Costa Rica and began operations by counterfeiting the currency of that country in the United States. Their object was the double one of discrediting the monetary system of Costa Rica and acquiring funds with which to carry out their plans. Burns handled the difficult case throughout and obtained the evidence which sent both men to prison. Big as the case was it was entirely overshadowed by the famous Brockway case and the Monroehead silver $100 certificate case. Clever counterfeiters have always been about the most difficult game a detective can stalk, and Brockway was perhaps the cleverest of them all. He took a special course in chemistry at Harvard University for the special purpose of perfecting himself in that particular branch of his counterfeiting work. He was known to the government for over twenty-five years but the Federal authorities were always glad to compromise with him, every time he was arrested in return for the surrender of his plates. They never could obtain sufficient evldence to convict him and round up to his gang until Burns took hold of the case in 1894 and obtained the evidence which sent him and his gang to jail. So skillfully was the counterfeited Monroe-head silver $100 certificate printed that even the treasury experts were deceived and it was of vital importance that the printing of them should be stopped. Not the slightest clue to the identity of the counterfeiters was in the hands of the government and the mere task of establishing their identity was a stupendous one. Burns conducted the investigation with characteristic thoroughness. He looked up every engraving establishment in the country and made a list of all the expert engravers who could possibly have done such clever work. He obtained a list of plate makers and finally a list of those concerns that used the photo-mechanical process, and by elimination his suspicions were narrowed down to three men in Philadelphia, two of whom proved to be the culprits, Taylor and Bredell.
A piece of remarkably clever detective work of an entirely different nature was his investigation of a lynching that occurred at Versailles, Ind., in 1897, when five prisoners were taken from the county jail and hanged or shot by a mob. Public opinion was aroused to such a high pitch that the local officers failed or refused to act and Gov. Mount of Indiana appealed to the Federal authorities for aid in enforcing the law. Because of the dangerous state of affairs Secretary Lyman J. Gage declined to assign any of his men on the case, but offered a leave of absence to Detective Burns if he would volunteer. Not long after he appeared on the scene in the guise of an insurance agent, and by associating with the natives and ingratiating himself in their good graces for a number of months, he succeeded in obtaining a list of the perpetrators of the crime with proofs which he turned over to the authorities.
In 1903 he resigned from the secret service and was appointed by Secretary E. O. Hitchcock of the Interior Department to take charge of the investigation of the Oregon, Washington and California land fraud cases, which were probably the most gigantic swindle that has ever been attempted against the United States government. For years and years vast areas of valuable government lands in the far West had been systematically stolen by the thousands and millions of acres. The secretary of the interior had made several attempts to get at the bottom of the frauds, but his special agents were never able to solve the problem and in addition they were bought off and bribed by the rich and powerful men involved in the frauds. But Mr. Burns is no respector of persons. He follows his leads in the performance of his duties, no matter how high up they go. He pursues his investigations without fear or favor, and in this case his disclosures resulted in the prosecution and conviction of a number of Federal, state and city officials, including U. S. senator John H. Mitchell of Oregon. The prosecuting officer in the land fraud cases was Francis J. Heney, who was to come more prominently before the public in the graft prosecution in San Francisco, Cal. It was Mr. Heney's acquaintance with Mr. Burns and his knowledge of the latter's exceptional ability that prompted him to urge Mr. Burns to accept the offer from prominent citizens of San Francisco to gather the evidence in the latter case. After the completion of his work there Burns went to New York to complete the plan his son George E. Burns, now deceased, had long cherished of establishing a detective agency of his own.
The William J. Burns National Detective Agency was organized in New York in 1909, and it at once took over the protection of the 12,000 bank members of the American Bankers' Association. Mr. Burns brought to the work the latest and most modern methods for preventing crime and apprehending criminals. His agency has branch offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, Ga., Detroit, Mich., and Dallas, Tex., and employs a staff of over 600 men.
It was shortly after his agency was organized that Mr. Burns was assigned the most difficult piece of work in his entire career, the successful outcome of which has given him a world-wide reputation and led the New York "Times" to characterize him as "the greatest detective certainly, and perhaps the only really great detective, the only detective of genius, whom this country has produced." This was the discovery and apprehension of the labor union dynamiters in 1911, which terminated a seven-years' reign of terror in the building trades all over the United States. The Bridge and Structural Iron Workers' Union had demanded the closed shop and had instigated a strike to enforce those demands. The building employers held out for the open shop, and thereafter all kinds of iron structural work in process of building was attacked by dynamite, sometimes with loss of life. During the seven years hundreds of lives had been lost and millions of dollars worth of property destroyed as the result of these outrages. The climax of these attacks was the destruction of the Los Angeles "Times" building in 1910, when twenty-one men were killed. The mayor of Los Angeles sought the services of Mr. Burns. The Burns agency had already been retained to investigate a previous dynamite explosion occurring in some property under construction belonging to McClintic, Marshall & Co., at Peoria, 1ll. The outcome was the arrest of John J. McXamara, secretary and treasurer of the National Association of Structural Iron and Bridge Workers; his brother, James B. McNamara, and Ortie McManigal, and the revelation of a most shameful conspiracy against building concerns all over the country, traced to the very door of organized labor. His evidence was so overwhelming that McManigal confessed before trial and both McNamaras pleaded guilty. It was such an appalling mass of absolutely unimpeachable evidence that it created consternation in the ranks of the unions, and shortly after the confessions of the McNamaras a concerted movement was started to immediately call off all pending strikes among organized labor.
Nothing has so stirred the American people since the civil war, and Mr. Burns won the everlasting gratitude of the entire nation for the thoroughness and fearlessness with which he laid bare the truth. Ex-President Roosevelt well expressed the sentiment of the American public on the conclusion of the Los Angeles case when he telegraphed to Mr. Burns: "All good American citizens feel that they owe you a debt of gratitude for your signal service to American citizenship." Personally Mr. Burns is affable and unassuming, with the general appearance of a prosperous and contented business man. No one would ever suspect his calling from his appearance. He is as far from the typical police detective as he is from the pale and penetrating Sherlock Holmes. But behind those external characteristics lies the unusual combination of attributes which have made him the greatest detective in the world. He is aggressive, dominating, assured, forceful and convincing, possessing dauntless courage, a remarkable mental alertness and the necessary self-assurance to carry him through any emergency. He has been successful as a great detective because he is in many respects a great character. There is probably no individual in the entire country with more inside information regarding municipal affairs, and he has been frequently called upon to deliver addresses in various cities of the country and before colleges on municipal problems of the day. He has addressed Columbia University, Ann Arbor University, and many other leading colleges, and has shown in his public addresses that he possesses oratorical ability of a high order.