The Man Arthur Conan Doyle Called 'America's Sherlock Holmes'

Newspapers called William J. Burns “the greatest detective America has produced,” and his sad fate illustrates what might have awaited the fictional Holmes if he'd been real.
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Wikimedia Commons; Library of Congress

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, are almost undoubtedly the most enduring figures in the history of detective fiction. Even though the original book series first surfaced in 1887, popular TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic (BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary) are doing much to rekindle an interest in Doyle’s mystery-solving duo, while other mediums—from the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law to the Ian Edginton and Davide Fabbri comic series Victorian Undead (which pits Holmes and Dr. Watson against a whole bevy of supernatural creatures)—are doing their part to insure that the Great Detective and his Boswell can be found in every nook and cranny of popular culture.

Despite the fact that Holmes and Dr. Watson are fictional characters, though, their cultural influence can even be discerned in the history of the world outside of the printed page. Ever since the end of the Victorian age, real detectives and police officials have often been held to the standards of fiction and have even seen their exploits re-cast as updated versions of one of Doyle’s many gaslight era tales. One American law-enforcement figure, in particular, bore the burden of living up to Holmes’s legacy: William J. Burns, an Irish-American sleuth who bore more than a passing resemblance to Doyle himself.

According to William R. Hunt’s biography Front-Page Detective: William J. Burns and the Detective Profession, 1880-1930, Burns was a friend of both President Theodore Roosevelt and Doyle—the latter of whom publicly hailed Burns as “America’s Sherlock Holmes." For much of his career, Burns was almost guaranteed a headline each time he caught on to a forgery or risked his life in the line of duty—but thanks to one flawed investigation and changes in method in the field of detective work, he didn't come out a hero in the end.

Born in Baltimore in 1861 but educated in Columbus, Ohio, Burns was the son of Irish refugees who fled to America during Ireland’s potato famine. A precocious child with a natural way with words, Burns’s father originally had dreams of his son becoming a lawyer. Young Burns considered lawyers “very serious and dull individuals,” according to Hunt, and he personally favored the life of an artist. While in high school, Burns was a member of the debate team and a frequent actor upon the school’s stage—an arena that he loved and excelled at, according to Gene Caesar’s Incredible Detective: The Biography of William J. Burns. Unfortunately for him, his father was strongly against his son becoming a thespian. For the elder Burns, William was to become a lawyer or nothing else. Eventually, after several confrontations between father and son, the younger Burns graduated high school and promptly enrolled in a local business college.

While still a teenager, Burns befriended Charles Ulrich, an old con and world-renowned forger. Ulrich dazzled Burns with his tales of adventure and his many run-ins with the U.S. Secret Service—the law enforcement agency responsible for prosecuting counterfeiters and major cases of fraud. Ulrich’s stories, combined with Burns’s love of detective tales, pushed Burns towards considering a life in law enforcement. 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, a local detective who ran a small agency that worked hard at taking clients away from the Pinkertons.

In 1889, after working on a series of cases for Furlong that took him all over the country, Burns’s application to the Secret Service was accepted. Not long after joining the U.S. Secret Service, Burns became a star detective known equally for his ability to hunt down a clue and for his penchant for chasing after the limelight. And while Burns was certainly guilty of courting the public’s admiration, this did not mean that he was either a braggart or a pretentious young man posing as a brilliant sleuth.

After establishing the William J. Burns International Detective Agency, Burns and his men fought on the front lines of one of America’s first wars on terror: In 1911, Burns and his agents helped to apprehend the McNamara Brothers—the two radical union leaders who orchestrated the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building. During that case, Burns posed as a hunter in order to enter an anarchist colony near Tacoma, Washington.The roster of Burns’s achievements and cases are both numerous and impressive. While on special assignment from President Roosevelt, Burns helped to expose the endemic corruption of San Francisco’s Mayor Eugene Schmitz and Abe Ruef, the political boss behind the then-ruling Union Labor Party. This investigation took several years, and it forced Burns to go undercover in both the forests of Oregon and the docks of San Francisco. When it was completed, according to Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century, San Francisco was rid of its corrupt government, and Burns was hailed by The New York Times as “the greatest detective… and perhaps the only really great detective… whom [America] has produced.”

Burns had a knack for going undercover, just like Holmeswhose ability to disguise himself as everything from an elderly book collector to an opium addict caused Dr. Watson to remark in “A Scandal in Bohemia” that in Sherlock Holmes, the “stage lost a fine actor.” Although the time Burns spent on the Washington anarchist colony was more or less a hopeless pursuit, Burns and his agents still managed to capture the McNamara brothers through dogged police work and a multi-state investigation that tracked dynamite purchases throughout the Midwest. This type of fastidiousness characterized Burns and his men, and in a less successful case detailed in Beverly Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror, Burns’s detective agency even went all the way to the Soviet Union in an attempt to bring the men who bombed Wall Street in 1920 to justice.

Beside terrorists, Burns also fought against injustice. Like Holmes, Burns was unafraid to involve himself in racially charged cases; in  “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” Holmes helps a broken multiracial family restore itself after a white English woman once married to an African-American named John Hebron hides her mixed-race daughter from her new English husband. (Doyle himself played a large role in overturning the wrongful convictions of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian, and Oscar Slater, a German Jew.) Burns, meanwhile, spent more than a year conducting a private investigation into the murder of Mary Phagan, the 13-year-old factory worker who was supposedly strangled to death by Leo Frank, the factory’s superintendent and a Jew from Brooklyn. Phagan’s 1913 murder not only helped to revitalize the Ku Klux Klan (which was initially reborn as the Knights of Mary Phagan), but it also drew the world’s attention because of the horrific lynching of Frank.

For his part, Burns doubted Frank’s guilt. His primary suspect—an African-American janitor named Jim Conley—is said to have confessed to the murder on his deathbed. Sadly, as the May 2, 1914 headline of the Atlanta Constitution shows, Burns was driven out of Georgia before his findings could sway the public’s opinion on the case. The Frank case, like the Wall Street bombing, helped to undermine Burns’s reputation as a flawless detective capable of successfully wrangling any case, no matter how large or how hopeless.

Burns’s reputation would continue to suffer during the 1920s. Not long after being named the Director for the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to today’s FBI), Burns and the BOI became directly involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal—that decade’s bête noire. After BOI agents were accused of trying to intimidate journalists critical of the Harding administration, Burns was forced to resign. His replacement, as Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones puts it in The FBI: A History, was a young BOI deputy head named John Edgar Hoover.

Burns retired to Florida and spent his remaining years fictionalizing his past exploits for the true-crime and detective pulps. “America’s Sherlock Holmes” died trying to convince readers that he was indeed a real-life Holmes, but readers by then had mostly given up on him; 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 and polygraph tests.

Despite the way his career ended, Burns did much inspire both real-life and fictional investigators. Conversely, Burns himself was held up to the standards of fiction, with Sherlock Holmes being the primary yardstick. Burns never quite lived up to Holmes (who never had to deal with holding an official position or go before a Senate hearing), but 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. 

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Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer and the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood.

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