Detective William J. Burns and the Los Angeles Times Case Part 1

About the famous detective William J. Burns and the Los Angeles Times case, account of the crime and biography of the detective.


The Crime

Shortly after 1:00 A.M. on Oct. 1, 1910, the downtown Los Angeles quiet was shattered by a bomb blast. The entire south wall of The Los Angeles Times building disintegrated before the eyes of frightened employees, 100 of whom were hard at work putting together the Saturday morning edition.

The weakened second floor, no longer able to support the heavy linotypes, collapsed onto the office workers below. The first floor then gave way, and everything crashed through to the basement. There, the building's heating plant and gas mains were shattered.

Fire erupted and spread quickly through the three-story structure. The wooden floors and interior paneling provided additional kindling for the gas-fed blaze. When the firemen arrived, they found their hoses were useless.

Their ladders, however, might save a few lives. Despite the searing heat, firemen, police, and volunteers worked to rescue the stunned and frightened employees who appeared at the windows. Many cleaning women, reporters, typesetters, and other workers were overcome by smoke and heat before help could reach them. Others, deciding they could not wait for ladders, leaped to the pavement below. For hours the air was filled with the shrieks of the dying and the stench of burned flesh. When the final tally was in, there were 21 dead and few survivors who weren't crippled or scarred for life.

The fire was still smoldering when Los Angeles Mayor George B. Alexander sent a wire to William J. Burns asking for his help.

Enter the Detective

William J. Burns was a short, stocky man in his early 50s. He had a ruddy complexion. The flame-red hair and full mustache of his youth had faded, but not his seemingly limitless energy. He wore vested suits decorated with a gold watch chain and sported a black derby. He was more likely to be taken for a businessman than for the country's greatest detective.

This was a half-century before the Supreme Court's Miranda and Escobedo decisions made the size of a detective's hat more important than the size of his biceps. Though Burns was not above resorting to extralegal methods to collect evidence or influence a suspect, he did not depend upon them as most other investigators did. Instead, he relied on his photographic memory, a keen understanding of human nature, and his skill as a practical psychologist.

Burns had started out to become a tailor, but found he had a genius for police work. Before founding the William Burns International Detective Agency, Inc., Burns had been a private detective in St. Louis and an investigator for the Treasury Dept. He was also a 20-year veteran of the Secret Service, considered by many officials to be the best agent they had ever had.

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