Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 1924 – William J. Burns Retains Position in BOI

The career of famed private investigator William J. Burns, “America's Sherlock Holmes,” dodged a bullet when his forced resignation from the Bureau of Investigation was revoked quietly by Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone. Burns had served as director for less than three years, and his time had been fraught with questionable activity. After a great deal of discussion with Stone and Calvin Coolidge and seeing the death of President Harding over the stress of the matter, Burns agreed that government needed to take a backseat to the Roaring Twenties.

Burns had lived a life of impressive detection. He started his career as an outstanding agent with the Secret Service, the federal organization that had been started by Abraham Lincoln to investigate counterfeiting after the Civil War and revolutionized into personal bodyguard for the president after the assassination of William McKinley. After building a successful reputation, Burns left to found the William J. Burns International Detective Agency. His exploits became sensational, earning him the nickname of being a real counterpart of the British fictional character Sherlock Holmes. He used newspapers and publishing effectively, building his reputation further and putting himself into a glowing light while his agency searched out criminals such as the supposed Industrial Workers of the World organizers of the bloody Wheatland Hop Riot in California in 1913.

When the head of the Bureau of Investigation retired for personal matters, longtime friend Attorney General Harry Daugherty recommended Burns to be appointed by President Harding. Burns took his fame to the BOI while also running his agency. Through efficiency and potentially questionable outsourcing, the BOI's personnel shrank from 1,127 to 600 during his tenure. The actions of his agents often worked as scare-tactics and invasive, and “G-men” continued to be increasingly distrusted and feared more than respected.

As 1923 turned to '24, government corruption became huge news with the Teapot Dome Scandal in which Naval oil reserve lands were illegally leased, along with a good deal of bribery. Harding, who had come out of publishing, fought the bad press with every ounce of his energy. In his well publicized "Voyage of Understanding", he attempted to reconnect with the common American and explain his growing political ideals amid turmoil until his death from pneumonia exacerbated by overwork. Daugherty came under fire for knowledge of kickbacks from Prohibition bootleggers, and finally Burns took heat after ordering his men to strong-arm newspapers away from any bad press of the BOI and retaliation against Representative Thomas Walsh, who had begun the opposition to the illegal leases.

Daugherty, who would eventually be proven innocent in senate hearings, resigned. The press was too much to fight, and he advised Burns to do the same. Burns, however, decided to go a different route and save his career in government. All his life, he had played to the papers, but that seemed impossible as they performed acts that were best kept quiet. He kept his position and took up a style after the new President Calvin Coolidge, or “Silent Cal.” Deputy Head J. Edgar Hoover balked at the
missed opportunities of public relations and eventually resigned himself, soon turning to his hometown Washington, D.C., police force.

Burns' career continued quietly, and he became mixed up in what would be known as the Gangster Wars. While Treasury Department enforcers battled speakeasies and bootleggers, Burns gradually came into an understanding with organized crime. He saw America as the frontier it had always been, and gangsters were the new gunslingers. Money was shuffled and protection given to the “good” gangsters, who dominated major cities. After several more years of activity that would be investigated for years to come, Burns retired to Florida and died fabulously wealthy with money supposedly from his detective stories and mysteries based on his life.

Hoover, meanwhile, worked to cleanse Washington's streets and made it a model for other cities. He established a confederation of local police forces, which would eventually circumvent the impotent BOI, which would be disbanded during World War II and replaced with the Central Security Agency, a home branch of the OSS akin to Britain's MI5. The CSA continued Burns' strategy of working in the dark and remains mysterious to many Americans today. Most believe them to be cruel shadow agents even more unquestionable than the KGB with an extremely broad understanding of the crime “treason.”

The majority of law enforcement, meanwhile, is held in the hands of local police. Interstate crime continues to be a legal headache as cases of known criminals are routinely thrown out of court due to jurisdiction issues. Simply crossing state lines allows many criminals to escape as chases must be handed over to other police. Improved communication has helped, but gangs well funded by drugs and other illegal activities usually carry superior equipment. In many cities, police are knowingly under bribes of organized crime, and citizens have no choice but to live on, many even applauding famous criminals.

In reality, Attorney General Stone insisted on the Burns' resignation. Burns returned to his agency and again came under scrutiny for “investigating” jurors during trials in the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1927. J. Edgar Hoover took his place at the BOI and transformed it through successful PR into the FBI in 1935, gaining fame for fighting Midwest bank robbers. Hoover continued to serve as director until his
death in 1972.

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