The World’s Greatest PIs – William J. Burns

The World’s Greatest Private Investigators: William J Burns

Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes”, William John Burns was a US citizen who started his career by forming the William J. Burns National Detective Agency, working alongside two of his sons. He then investigated the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, on behalf of the City of LA, before moving on to become the director of the Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor of the FBI).

His first big break was the Times bombing, where he and one of his sons worked alongside the Los Angeles Police Department, across various divisions. Burns and his son assisted in the identification and apprehension of all three suspects; Brothers, Jim and John McNamara and buddy, Ortie McManigal. At their hearing, both McNamara brothers pled guilty to the bombing, proving Burns’ abilities and winning him high regard from multiple law enforcement agencies.

Given the kinship he shared with President Warren Harding’s Attorney General and taking into consideration the successful work he’d done through his agency, William’s experience and qualifications made him the perfect fit to direct the Bureau of Investigation.

With that, on August 22, 1921, William J. Burns accepted the directorship, aiming to streamline and modernise the Bureau, shrinking it from 1,127 personnel to just 600 employees in 1923. Burns was also recognised for hiring stepping out of line, for the time, and hiring the first female special agents, with whom he and his Bureau would investigate a wide range of allegations and crimes, including political corruption.

He continued to direct his own detective agency during his tenure as the head of the BOI, sometimes using his own agents to aid in BOI investigations as well as taking on other private work, but in so doing, he managed to get involved in a near-career-ending scandal.

The Teapot Dome Scandal involved illegally leasing naval oil reserve lands to private organisations, and was a potentially disastrous affair for Burns. At the time, Harry F. Sinclair went on trial for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and Burns was hired to secretly follow the jurors. After becoming involved, he was sentenced to serve time in prison, but immediately filed an appeal which won and had the charges reversed.

The scandal, and the potentially misguided actions the BOI were “avidly” covered in the press, to the extent that William was forced to resign in 1924, being replaced by John Edgar Hoover no less! For roughly a year afterwards, he continued to operate the William J. Burns National Detective Agency, pursuing numerous private, commercial and even government contracts before he retired and moved to Florida. There, Burns wrote and published a number of detective and true-crime stories based on the cases he had personally undertaken during his long and industrious career, before dying of a heart attack in 1932.

We believe that William J. Burns to be one of the most accomplished Private Eyes in history, having gone from operating his own family-run agency to successfully investigating a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and; becoming head of the precursor to the FBI before returning to private work and becoming a published author. Sure, he, like many creative and industrious detectives of the time, may have bent the rules from time to time, but in spite of it all, his investigative mind and his means of action in the field are something truly remarkable.

Thanks for reading!


The Precise Investigation Team

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