William J. Burns

For other people with the same name, see William Burns (disambiguation).
William J. Burns
Director of the Bureau of Investigation
In office
August 22, 1921  May 10, 1924
President Warren Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Preceded by William J. Flynn
Succeeded by J. Edgar Hoover
Personal details
Born (1861-10-19)October 19, 1861
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died April 14, 1932(1932-04-14) (aged 70)
Sarasota, Florida, U.S.

William John Burns (October 19, 1861 – April 14, 1932), known as "America's Sherlock Holmes," is famous for having conducted a private investigation clearing Leo Frank of the murder of Mary Phagan,[1] and for serving as the director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) (predecessor to the FBI) from August 22, 1921 to May 10, 1924. He was born in Baltimore, Maryland and was educated in Columbus, Ohio. As a young man, Burns performed well as a Secret Service Agent and parleyed his reputation into the William J. Burns International Detective Agency, now a part of Securitas Security Services USA. A combination of natural ability as a detective combined with an instinct for publicity made Burns a national figure. His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published "true" crime stories based on his exploits.

Marriage and children

Burns married Annie M. Ressler in 1880. The couple had six children. Burns' sons, Raymond J. and William Sherman also worked as detectives for the William J. Burns National Detective Agency.[2]

Los Angeles Times bombing

The City of Los Angeles hired Burns to catch those responsible for the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building on October 1, 1910. Burns's son Raymond and police officers from the Detroit and Chicago police departments arrested Jim McNamara and associate Ortie McManigal on April 14, 1911 in Detroit. John McNamara was arrested later that month in Indianapolis, Indiana. Extradited to Los Angeles, the brothers pleaded guilty to murder in the bombing.[3]

BOI career

Burns was considered well qualified to direct the Bureau of Investigation, and was friends with President Warren Harding's Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. Burns was confirmed as Director of the Bureau of Investigation on August 22, 1921. He continued to run the Burns Detective Agency throughout his tenure as Director of the BOI. Under Burns, the Bureau shrank from its 1920 high of 1,127 personnel to 600 employees in 1923.

At the request of Attorney General Daugherty, Burns sent agents to investigate Montana Representative Thomas J. Walsh for evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The investigation was actually a pretext for retaliation; the congressman had been instrumental in opposing oil leases granted by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, a friend of Daugherty and fellow cabinet member. Burns later refused to turn over Department of Justice documents to Congressional investigators, who in turn began investigating the BOI; Senate hearing revelations of BOI misdeeds were avidly covered in the press, and became known as the Daugherty-Burns scandal. Burns' BOI field agents made visits to the offices of newspapers around the country who had presented the BOI's actions in a negative light; their clumsy attempts to intimidate newspaper editors caused a backlash in public opinion and Congress. Burns was forced to resign in 1924 at the request of Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone[4] and on May 10, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover took over the position on a provisional basis.

Burns Detective Agency and Teapot Dome

Burns also became indirectly involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal, involving the secret leasing of naval oil reserve lands to private companies. In November 1927, Harry F. Sinclair went on trial in federal court for conspiracy to defraud the U. S. in the leasing of the Teapot Dome naval oil reserve. At the request of Sinclair oil executive Henry Mason Day, Burns secretly hired a squad of 14 men from the William J. Burns Detective Agency to "investigate" his jurors. Day arranged for their compensation and received their daily reports. Midway through the trial the government's investigators discovered Burns' agents, and a mistrial was immediately declared.

At a new hearing, Sinclair's defense was that he had had the jurors followed to protect them against federal influences; that in no case had the operatives made direct contact with the jurors. Sinclair was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to six months in jail, Day to four months' imprisonment, William J. Burns to 15 days' imprisonment, and Burns' son, William Sherman Burns, was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. William J. immediately appealed, and the Supreme Court later reversed his conviction (Sinclair v. United States, 279 US 749 - Supreme Court 1929).[5]


After his retirement from the Burns Detective Agency, Burns moved to Florida and for several years published detective and mystery stories based on his long career. He died of a heart attack in Sarasota, Florida in April 1932.

Burns was portrayed by actor Paul Dooley in the television miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan.


See also


  1. Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, at 210 (Modern Library 2003).
  2. Bailey William G. ed., "The Encyclopedia of Police Science", second edition(1995) Pg. 49.
  3. Blum, Howard, "American Lightning: Terror, Mystery & The Birth of Hollywood", Three Rivers Press (2008), ISBN 978-0-307-34694-0
  4. Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, The FBI: A History, University Press of Kentucky (2007), ISBN 978-0-300-11914-5, p. 79
  5. Time Magazine, Day In, Burns Out, 10 June 1929


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Government offices
Preceded by
William J. Flynn
Director of the Bureau of Investigation
Succeeded by
J. Edgar Hoover
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