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Illustration by Security Management

Today in Security History: The Death of William J. Burns, American Detective

On 14 April 1932, William John Burns, known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes” passed away in Sarasota, Florida. Like his predecessor Allan Pinkerton and his successor at the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, Burns was a master of self-promotion. He had an instinct for publicity that magnified the major cases he investigated. Burns was a brass band detective—always trumpeting his successes to nearby reporters. He also authored “true” crime stories based on his cases in detective magazines.

In 1906, Burns left the U.S. Secret Service after a distinguished career investigating high-profile frauds. His reputation as an excellent detective who was honest—compared to many corrupt ones at the time—continued to grow in the private sector. In 1909, the celebrated detective organized the William J. Burns National Detective Agency. The 1910 Los Angeles Times Bombing helped make him a household name. Business was booming, and in 1913 the William J. Burns Detective Agency became the Burns International Detective Agency.

In 1921, Burns returned to the U.S. federal government work on a full-time basis. He took the reins overseeing the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. He got the job due to his qualifications and friendship with Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

However, Burns’ meteoric rise and good reputation were not to last. In early April 1922, Interior Secretary Albert Fall leased the U.S. Navy’s emergency oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company. The lease was exclusive with no competitive bidding and was done in secret in return for a kickback.

When trucks with the Sinclair logo were noticed moving into the Teapot Dome area, rumors began to circulate. On 14 April 1922, the Wall Street Journal broke the story on what became the biggest government scandal in U.S. history up until that point.

Burns became a casualty of the Teapot Dome affair after he sent his men to dig up dirt on Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a key player in the Senate investigation of Teapot. Burns did this at the behest of his friend Daugherty, who was later forced out of office. Daugherty’s replacement, Harlan Fiske Stone, subsequently requested Burns’ resignation. Burns complied, and 14 June 1924 was his last day as director.

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The Teapot Dome scandal hung over Burns long after his resignation. He was also under attack for his relentless anti-union and anti-Communist activities, which liberal groups said tread upon civil liberties.

Ever the publicist, Burns retired in Florida and published detective and mystery stories. He also made numerous film appearances until a year or so before he died. His life had come full circle: as a young man he was active in theatre and aspired to be an actor. William Burns believed as a youth that he was destined to be famous. Famous he became, but few people know of him today.

Chris Hertig, CPP, CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor), has been a student and teacher of security and police history for 40 years. He manages the Security History Group on LinkedIn and the Security & Police History Group on Facebook. Chris is a life member of ASIS and long-term member of the Professional Development Community as well as the International Foundation for Protection Officers (IFPO) board of directors. Early in his career he worked for Burns International Security Services, Inc., the successor to the William J. Burns Detective Agency.