“Mysterious disappearances don’t occur,” William J. Burns, the head of the William J. Burns National Detective Agency, said flatly. He was talking to a reporter from The Houston Post, who was interviewing him for the December 22 edition of the paper.
Burns was a famed detective in his day. Prior to opening his own agency, he was a well-known detective with the United States Secret Service.
The young reporter appeared to be dazzled by the famous detective. He described Burns as a “muscular, blue-eyed American Sherlock Holmes”, and eagerly captured each anecdote by writing as rapidly as he could in his small notebook.
“There are no mysteries in crime,” Burns assured his companion. “And the reason why there are no mysteries, in the true sense of the word, is because every criminal, no matter how clever and cautious he may be, leaves a track. It may not be a plain and distinct one, not which one which can be discerned unless looked for in the right direction and with common sense, but it is always there, nevertheless– hidden though it may be.”
Burns told him of several successful cases, including this one:
“As an illustration, some years ago before I opened my agency a certain man in a western city embezzled a large sum. He disappeared without leaving the least clue as to where he had gone. I knew however, that he had a physical ailment in the form of partial paralysis of one hand. It was one of his peculiarities to bathe the hand very frequently.
“I made up my mind that he had gone further west and that he would probably make for some port on the Pacific coast and try to get out of the country by vessel. I therefore went to San Francisco and ascertained that an ocean-going vessel had sailed within a certain time. I learned from a steward on one of the Pacific Mail steamers that on a previous trip he had been the stateroom steward of a passenger who is in the habit of bathing one hand very frequently in very hot water and using a galvanic battery.
“I found out at what port this passenger–who of course, traveled under an assumed name– disembarked. It was in Mexico. I went there at once and, the day after my arrival, found the man I was looking for. I brought him back to the United States and he was convicted.
“Now if it had not been for such a trifling habit as that of frequently bathing his disabled hand, he might’ve escaped punishment; but clever though he had been in getting away and leaving no apparent evidence of his departure from the country, he overlooked something which led to his arrest.
Burns summed up the interview this way: “The reason why the mysteries of so many crimes are not solved and the criminals brought to justice is, generally speaking, because an intelligent, persistent, and continued investigation has not been made.”