Detective Edward O. Heinrich and the Mail Train Murders Part 1

About the famous detective Edward O. Heinrich and the Mail Train Murders, history and solution of the crime.




The Crime

On Oct. 11, 1923, a Southern Pacific mail train, its coaches filled with passengers, was moving slowly through a tunnel in the Siskiyou Mountains in southern Oregon when two men armed with shotguns climbed over the tender (the car behind the engine) and ordered the engineer and fireman to stop as soon as the engine and tender cleared the tunnel. The trainmen could do nothing but comply. They pulled to a halt as the third car, which carried the mail, was also partially clear of the tunnel. As the railroaders watched, immobile in the stare of the shotguns, a man emerged from the woods holding a bulky package, which he placed against the side of the mail car. Running back to a detonator, this third man set off an explosion. The mail car was enveloped in flames. In fact, the charge was so great that the robbers could not even approach the mail car. Their attempt to rob it was therefore a failure; furthermore, they had incinerated the lone clerk inside.

Before the trio could leave, a brakeman who had heard the explosion came running forward through the tunnel. Perhaps out of frustration, perhaps to prevent identification, the bandits shot down the three railroaders in cold blood, bringing the death toll to four, and fled.

Enter the Detective

Immediately after the tragedy, county lawmen, railroad police, postal detectives, and other authorities descended on the scene. They found a detonating device equipped with batteries. Nearby were a revolver and a well-worn and greasy pair of blue denim overalls, as well as some shoe covers made out of burlap soaked in creosote, evidently intended to be worn by the bandits to throw bloodhounds off their scent. It appeared that the criminals had used some alternative false-scent tactic, because posses utilizing canine trackers were stopped cold. After several weeks, all the investigators had come up with a mechanic from a garage some miles away who, not surprisingly, worked in grease. The grime on his clothes appeared to be similar to the grease found on the overalls. He was questioned at length, but he kept insisting he was innocent. Then someone finally suggested, "Let's see if that fellow Heinrich in Berkeley can help us."

Edward Oscar Heinrich at 42 was a private investigator and handwriting expert who lectured at the University of California on scientific methods of criminal detection. He had already aided police all over the country in hundreds of cases, among them the Fatty Arbuckle manslaughter scandal, and he was commonly known as the "Edison of crime detection." To call him a private detective was indeed a putdown. He was, rolled into one, a geologist, a physicist, a biochemist, a handwriting expert, and an authority on papers and inks. According to Heinrich, the scene of a criminal act always contains many clues, and it is up to a scientific investigator to find and interpret those clues correctly.

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