1924, Buster Keaton, film still of Sherlock, Jr.
by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
SINCE the days of Edgar A. Poe’s Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, fictional detectives have loomed large in the American consciousness. Lost in the flood of Victorian sleuths, Hawkshaws, ferrets, gumshoes and Peelers were the genuine articles, both official police officers and private investigators. The term ‘private eye’ was derived from the motto of Allen Pinkerton’s national agency: ‘We Never Sleep’ and a wide-open eye. At least one dime novel, Frank Dumont’s 1878 Wide-A-Wake, The Robber King; or, The Idiot of the Black Hills, published in Beadle’s New York Dime Library, appropriated the logo without permission. (Pinkerton himself was not above publishing sensationalized versions of some of his notorious cases in dime novel format.)
| Beadle’s New York Dime Library, No. 60, Vol. 5.|
| The Detective, Vol. IV, July 1888.|
According to publisher P.C. Holland, his paper was intended ‘for public inquiry, not only in regard to criminals, but very largely, in the employment of inquiries for missing people and stolen property.’ For what he termed ‘secret correspondence and inquiries,’ a ‘branch of the business,’ called The Iowa Detective Association, employing independent ‘good live’ agents throughout the U.S., Canada ‘and other English speaking countries,’ had been incorporated in January 1883.
The 1880s was the decade in which scientific criminology began to infiltrate law enforcement. The over-elaborate and subjective Bertillon system of accurate physical measurements and photography soon replaced vague verbal descriptions, such as ‘he has a down look,’ or ‘a hangdog expression,’ or ‘exhibits a criminal physiognomy.’ (One of the major obstacles to capturing Jesse James was the lack of an accurate physical description or a photograph taken after the age of sixteen.) The forensic sciences were still in their infancy, but the chain of events leading from basic fingerprint comparison to today’s DNA procedures was put into motion in the 1880s and ’90s. (Although human fingerprints had been proven individually unique as early as 1788, the next step took a century to put into practice.)
Perhaps the most intriguing feature to modern eyes is the array of woodcuts of police equipments, from badges to concealed cane guns, including a chilling array of ‘darbies,’ handcuffs, ‘nippers,’ ‘come-alongs,’ and other restraints. Fans of period detective dramas such as The Murdoch Mysteries will recognize the dark lanterns, truncheons, whistles, tin cash boxes and padlocks advertised for sale. Bostonian Edward Davis Bean manufactured a line of such paraphernalia. His breechloading cane gun, first patented in November 1885, was manufactured by the Cyclist’s and Sportsman’s Gun and Rifle Company of Kittery, Maine. Intended as a defense for hikers and cyclists against vicious dogs and footpads, this nasty concealed firearm could obviously be put to more sinister uses. The Detective Publishing Company was – surprise, surprise – the Northwest agency for Bean’s products. His portrait figured prominently in his ad.
The ‘wages of sin’ received fair coverage as well. On page one of the July 1888 issue is a rather flippant notice that New York was about to substitute electrocution for the gallows during the year. This announcement was a bit premature. Although Thomas Edison conducted a series of lethal experiments on animals during 1888, largely to prove that rival George Westinghouse’s Alternating Current was a deadly menace, New York did not adopt the electric chair until 1889. William Kemmler would be the first condemned prisoner to die in the device in August 1890. (The procedure was so botched that Kemmler took eight minutes to die horribly.) As The Detective put it, the future ‘taking off’ of a murderer by electricity promised to be a ‘shocking affair.’
Thanks to the romantic aura conferred on detectives by dime novels, it is likely that this trade paper had a wider readership than merely law enforcement professionals. No doubt small boys tried to memorize the features of wanted fugitives in the hopes of spotting ‘Bill the Brute’ or ‘Pugsley Hurley’ and claiming the reward.
The image of the hard-boiled square-jawed two-fisted investigator rescuing damsels in distress and carting legions of malefactors to jail continues to fascinate. He is Dick Tracy, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, Sherlock Holmes, et al., operating in a film noir world of trench coats, wet streets and garish neon lights, or Hansom cabs, noisome slums and suffocating fog. Keen of eye, sharp of intellect and handy with a revolver, the classic detective remains an enduring cultural myth
| Detective Library, No. 724.|