San Francisco History

How a Murder Was Solved

How a Murder Was Solved in 1865; How It Would Be Solved Now

By Chandler Thomas

On the 15th day of February, 1865, less than a month after the first edition of the San Francisco Chronicle appeared, Martin J. Burke, San Francisco’s second chief of police, called several of his policemen into his office.

“Men, you all know this fellow Hill who lives at the Mansion House on Dupont street?” Chief Burke asked.

The answer was affirmative. Hill was well known in the town. He recently had inherited money and flaunted the bequest.

“Hill has disappeared,” the chief continued. “Let’s see if we can find him.”

After lunch the chief rode over to the Mansion House, talked with his friend, the manager. Chief Burke learned from him that Hill had gone out of the hotel several days ago with Tom Byrnes, a saloon keeper. The chief dropped in on Byrnes later in the afternoon. Over a glass of steam beer, Byrnes said he had spent all day with Hill and that they had parted early in the evening. No, Byrnes said, Hill didn’t happen to mention where he was going. The chief had another beer, then left.

A week later a farmer drove his wagon team into San Francisco from desolate Sans Souci valley—Fulton and Baker streets now intersect that area—told Chief Burke his dog had uncovered a body on his farm.

A Murder in 1865 And Its Solution

Chief Burke and several officers drove back with the farmer, and there, in a shallow grave, they found the body of Hill. He had been struck several blows on the head. His flashy jewelry, including a showy cluster pin, was missing.

The chief instructed one of the officers to notify the Coroner.

When the Coroner learned of the murder he called several of the townspeople, took them with him to the scene of the crime, held an inquest. Verdict: Death at the hands of a person or persons unknown. Then the body was removed to one of the town’s undertaking establishments, a crude autopsy performed.

Next day Chief Burke instructed his officers to stop in the pawnshops on their beats and keep an eye out for Hill’s jewelry. Several days later an officer reported he had found Hill’s cluster pin in one of the shops. The pawnbroker said Tom Byrnes had brought it in.

Chief Burke’s steps were quicker now. He again called on his friend at the Mansion House, learned that Byrnes and Hill had driven off together that day in a carriage. A visit to the town’s stables revealed that Byrnes had hired the carriage and that the horses had brought it back empty in the evening.

The solution of that crime was easy. Byrnes, confronted with the evidence, confessed that he had murdered Hill for his money. The plan had been to make it look like Hill had been thrown from the carriage by the runaway team. But there had been a slip, Byrnes had lost his nerve, struck Hill with a heavy wrench, buried the body. Byrnes subsequently was convicted, executed.

How the Crime Would Be Solved in 1940

But that case happened 75 years ago—in an age without telephones, automobiles, radio. True, civilization was less complex then, but let’s imagine that Byrnes had murdered Hill in 1940 and see how the police machinery would move.

Hill’s disappearance is noted by a friend at the hotel. He calls police on the telephone. Officer Stuart then hands the information to Officer Miller at another desk. Officer Miller reads the communication, presses down a switch at his left and then speaks into the microphone in front of him.

“Central 3, the Black Hotel, 909, (pause) Central 3, the Black Hotel, 909, Message 314, KGPD, San Francisco Police, 2:34.W” (Signal “909” means “interview or get report from a man.”)

Officers Jordan and Blue, cruising slowly through their district in a radio patrol car, become alert as they hear their car number come through the loudspeaker. While Jordan, who is at the wheel, drives to the hotel, Blue records the message on a chart on the dashboard.

From the “complainant” the officers take a detailed report which includes at what time and date the “victim” was last seen, with whom, by whom. They also take a complete description, enter it in their report book. When their information is complete, Blue goes to the phone, calls the Bureau of Inspectors, relays the data. Then they return to Central Station at 645 Washington street, write a formal report.

Discovery of Bones In a Backyard

One copy of that report is sent to the Bureau of Inspectors, who in the meantime has ordered the description broadcast to radio patrol cars and put on local and State-wide teletypes. Another copy is sent to the Bureau of Missing Persons, a division of the Bureau of Inspectors. The case is assigned to Inspectors Mulligan and Casey. They scan the report, then set out to interview the complainant. They also check with the morgue, ascertain whether anyone of the missing person’s description lies there.

At the hotel, Mulligan and Casey learn from the complainant that Hill was last seen driving away in an automobile from the hotel with a friend, Tom Byrnes, who operates a Tavern on Third street. The inspectors interview Byrnes who tells them he parted with Hill in a Fourth street tavern early in the evening. The inspectors interview the bartender at the Fourth street bar who says he knows neither Hill nor Byrnes. Mulligan and Casey are stalemated.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s 900 patrolmen are watching for a man of Hill’s description. So is every police officer in California.

Then Spotty, a dog owned by John Doe, who lives near Fulton and Baker streets, uncovers a body while pawing in the backyard. John Doe makes the discovery, rushes to the telephone, calls police. Again Officer Stuart receives the call in the Bureau of Communications. Again he sends a radio car to the scene.

But on a case of this sort the Bureau of Inspectors is notified immediately, the “crew” gets under way. Inspectors John Jones, Floyd Smith dash downstairs to the police garage where their police car is ready at the door. The siren screams and they are rolling.

Meanwhile, Officers Johnson and Flynn have arrived on the scene in the radio patrol car. They find John Doe waiting for them. In the backyard, in a shallow grave, they find the body of a well-dressed, middle-aged man.

Minutes later the inspectors’ car stops at the curb and the two detectives bounce out, run to where the body is. Inspector Jones tells Officer Johnson to ring the Coroner. The two detectives then look closer at the body, see that the skull is crushed in on the left side. There are dark stains on the face, neck and suit coat. Inspector Smith goes into John Doe’s house, calls the inspector in charge of the bureau, tells him it is a case for the homicide detail. Then Inspector Smith interviews John Doe. While the patrolmen stand by the body, Inspector Jones sets out to interview neighbors to learn if they have noted any suspicious occurrences that might yield a clue.

The Machinery Moves Toward An Answer

Now another police car draws to the curb, and Inspectors Green and Black of the homicide detail are on the job. With them is Police Photographer Magee, Criminologist Packard. Magee sets up his equipment and makes pictures of the body from several different footprints nearby, makes a cast of them. Meanwhile, Inspectors Jones and Smith turn over all their information to the homicide crew, start back to headquarters. Their part in the case is closed.

Soon the City and Count of San Francisco’s dark blue ambulance arrives and Deputy Coroner White is ready to start his investigation. He examines the wound quickly (he is not an M.D.), takes body temperature if there is doubt concerning time of death. Then he goes through the clothing, removing everything from the pockets. He examines each article, learns from identification in a wallet that the dead man is Alfred Hill, who lives in a down town hotel. The detectives also record that information.

Leaving Deputy Coroner White and Patrolmen Johnson and Flynn at the scene, the detectives proceed to Hill’s hotel, search the room for a possible motive for the crime. They interview the hotel manager, Hill’s intimates. Then they go to Hill’s office, search again.

At the hotel, Inspectors Green and Black learn that Hill was last seen driving away with Thomas Byrnes, a Third street tavern operator. The inspectors interview Byrnes, who recounts the same story he previously told the detectives from the Bureau of Missing Persons.

Inspectors Green and Black return to headquarters, look through missing person reports, find the report on Hill. They discover that Hill wore flashy jewelry, including a cluster pin. There was no jewelry on the body, they recall. The burglary detail has no report from Hill that his jewelry had been stolen. The detectives conclude Hill must have been in possession of the jewelry at the time of his disappearance.

Evidence Brings About A Confession

A new day has dawned. In the Coroner’s office an autopsy is being performed. Vital organs are sent to the city toxicologist. The criminologist has taken specimens from the clothing, from under fingernails. Fingerprints are taken by morgue attendants for positive identification. The criminologist ahs examined the wound, determined the blows were struck by a heavy, blunt instrument, perhaps a wrench. An inquest has been held, with the jury returning a verdict of death at the hands of a person or persons unknown.

Inspectors Green and Black personally examine reports of the pawnshop detail and make the rounds of pawnshops. In one they find the cluster pin. It had been sold by a man fitting the description of Byrnes. The detectives quiz the tavern operator again, then search his rooms, find more jewelry. They examine his automobile, find marks of a scuffle, bits of material that match with material from Hill’s clothing, soil similar to that where the body was found. Byrnes is taken to the Hall of Justice for further questioning, is later booked at City Prison “en route to Los Angeles,” a charge which precludes bail.

The criminologist is called in for technical study. He matches the plaster cast of one of the footprints taken at the scene of the crime with a shoe belonging to Byrnes. Byrnes fingerprints match with prints found on a stained wrench in Byrnes’ automobile.

To make a short and comparatively simple investigation shorter, Byrnes confesses when confronted with the evidence. . .

That case, however, represents only a minute part of the complete panorama of police activities. Through the years, San Francisco has averaged about 15 murders a year, some of which turned out to be manslaughter cases and similar types of offense.

But what do the 1300 some policemen do who yearly arrest nearly 80,000 persons in San Francisco? And who are they, where do they come from, why are they policemen, how do they work?

San Francisco’s No Place for Criminals

Roll call in one of San Francisco’s police stations sounds like a man greeting friends at a wake. As in New York most of San Francisco’s policemen are of Irish descent. Some still wear a thick brogue on their tongues.

They come into the Police Department for a myriad of reasons. Some are “born” policemen, others need a job, are attracted by the department’s excellent pension system, still others just want to be policemen, wear a uniform, feel power. But they come in young, stay long. Average years of service for patrolmen is 13 years, 4 months; for sergeants, 23 years; captains, 32 years. Eighty-seven per cent of them are married. The common cold still lays more them low than any other illness.

What does the police army accomplish? It gives “protection” to some 700,000 citizens residing in the nine police districts of San Francisco (Central, Northern, Mission, Richmond, Southern, Taraval, Golden Gate Park, Harbor and Ingleside). But that service is intangible. What do they actually accomplish?

They arrest yearly nearly 40,000 drunks, more than 10,000 vagrants, some 2000 persons in connection with gambling establishments, nearly 1000 inmates and keepers of houses of prostitution, nearly 1000 petty thieves, nearly 2000 traffic violators. Those arrests, combined with many more, make up “protection.” They contact about as many people again as they arrest in placating family arguments, quieting noisy parties.

And what is the result? A true story best illustrates the efficacy of the department.

Several months ago a disconsolate little chap sat on a chair in an upstairs room in the Hall of Justice. He was a “bunco artist” who had just been arrested by two detectives.

“You know, it’s my own damn fault I got arrested,” the prisoner told the officers. “I’ve worked my racket all over the country. Every place I went my friends told me to stay away from San Francisco. They said this town was hot.”

The bunco artist was correctly informed by his friends. San Francisco is “hot” for criminals. It has been “hot” for a log time. It will be “hot” for a long time to come.

The answer is simple. A unique method of “crime prevention,” the underlying philosophy of which is: “We don’t want criminals in our town.”

And they keep out.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 28 January 1940. J13. 

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