Detective William Burns

Detective William J. Burns was one of a handful of private investigators to become a household name during his career. Portrayed as a real-life Sherlock Holmes by his fans and accused of being a shameless self-promoter by his enemies, Burns relished his celebrity status. He was a publicity hound and cultivated his relationships with reporters by leaking information from his investigations. Equally important as his fame, the Burns Detective Agency provided guns, spies and agents provocateur for hire in the war between capital and labor.

Despite being headquartered in Darrow’s hometown of Chicago, Burns seemed to be everywhere. Purely by coincidence, before the sun set on the day following the Times bombing, Burns arrived in Los Angeles. He was there to speak before one of his major accounts, the American Bankers Association. Not long after his arrival in town, Burns was approached by Mayor Alexander who wanted Burns to investigate the bombing. That day, Burns and his detectives began to scour the trail of the bombers.

What Mayor Alexander didn’t know was that Burns had helpers in his investigation and knew more about the identity of the culprits than he let on. Burns had already been retained by the steel contractors. Several historians believe that Burns likely had an informant within the Iron Workers Union. Over the next several months, Burns and his agents pieced together key bits of evidence and by Saturday afternoon, April 22, 1911, Burns and his people, accompanied by the local police, invaded the Iron Workers national headquarters in Indianapolis.  J.J. was arrested and taken for an arraignment of charges before a local municipal court judge. At the arraignment hearing, documents signed by the governors of California and Indiana, requested the court to send J.J. to California to stand trial for dynamiting the Los Angeles Times. In short, he was wanted for murder.” J.J.’s request for a formal extradition hearing as guaranteed by Indiana law was denied and that evening, he was handcuffed to a detective from Los Angeles and began his journey west, by both car and train.

After J.J.’s court hearing, Burns returned to the Iron Workers headquarters where he was joined by local police and members of the press whom he had invited. One of the people who arrived with Burns was Walter Drew, lawyer for the steel contractors’ association. Drew searched through J.J.’s private desk, pouring over the union’s checkbook; rummaging through J.J.’s notes and papers; and scrutinizing duplicates of checks written the previous year. Despite lack of a search warrant, Drew proceeded with permission of the Indianapolis Police Department.

When Burns was finished in the headquarters’ offices, he went to the basement where there was a vault-like chamber linked to J.J.  Burns had his men force it open. Once the door was opened, they found a room packed with explosives. On the shelves were packages of dynamite, weighing nearly two hundred pounds, as well as a box of percussion caps and fuses. Most important, Burns found a box containing a dozen small alarm clocks that closely resembled one found in Los Angeles.

Moving swiftly and efficiently, with inside information from a union informant on his payroll, Burns had secured crucial evidence linking J.J. and his brother Jim to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, and the murder of twenty Times’ employees.

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