Thirty Years a Detective

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Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.

In Memory of O’Neil McGean

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I knew O’Neil since I was about 12 years old. We called him Neil back then. He was about 16 years old, and my mother used to have him come to the house to watch my brothers and me when she went out. Neil’s main job was to keep my older brother, Dan, from beating the crap out of my younger brother, Paul. Neil was very good at distracting Dan, who was 13 at the time, and the two became close friends.

After he graduated high school, Neil worked for the small business my mother owned and ran. The company collected data from the Labor Department and from the Securities and Exchange commission, verified it and cleaned it up, then published it in volumes that were sold to professionals in the financial industry. Neil’s job was to call the companies that had filed documents with Labor and SEC, and verify that all the data was still accurate. He was good at it, because he was good at talking to people.

After he left that job, he started working at the Charles Jourdan store on Wisconsin Avenue, near Friendship Heights. How he pulled that off, I still do not know. The guy didn’t shave half the time, he didn’t dress particularly well, and he seemed to always have a toothpick or a plastic straw hanging out of his mouth. (Maybe some of his other friends from that time will remember how, whenever he went to McDonalds he always came out with a pocket full of straws. He’d stick one in his mouth and chew on it for a while, and then when he got sick of it, he’d unwrap another one, like it was a fresh cigar.) Anyway, this somewhat slovenly guy somehow wound up being so good at selling high-end shoes to rich women that they promoted him to manager.

He stayed there for quite a while before he decided it was time to move on. And what’s the logical next step in that career path? Why, landscaper, of course! He left the fancy shoe store and started rooting around in the dirt. In the summer of 1988, we were both working again at the same company. I forget the name of the place, but the headquarters was in Rockville, and they had a fleet of 30 or 40 white pickups, along with a few larger trucks. About 90% of the business was mowing, so that’s what 90% of the employees did every day.

We used to roll in a little before 7 A.M. Neil and I drove separately, but we both liked to get there early because there were only three or four fast self-propelled mowers and whoever got there first got to take them for the day. We were also both pretty particular about which truck we drove, and the trucks too were first-come, first-serve. Almost the whole fleet was Dodge, and the Dodge trucks of the late 80’s had the brake release directly above the parking brake pedal. When you pulled the release, the pedal would shoot up and crush your fingers. I always tried to take one of the Ford trucks to avoid getting my fingers crushed. Neil seemed to favor one really old truck that reminded me of Sanford and Son. (It wasn’t quite that old, but you get the picture.)

Each morning, we’d be assigned a partner, and we’d go out in teams of two, with a list of 20 or 30 lawns to cut. Neil and I were both very efficient, and they’d give us the longest lists. We’d take the fast mowers and head out with our partners.

One day, after the rains had made the grass unusually tall and thick, I remember Neil had his truck all loaded up with two mowers and a trimmer and blower, and he was pacing around the shop and cursing because he had a huge list and his partner had not shown up.  Neil called the guy’s house, but there was no answer.

I headed out with my partner, and we had a lot of trouble getting through the high, wet grass. We typically ended our days at the Montgomery County Transfer Station up in Gaithersburg, where we’d dump our truckload of grass. Actually, we had pitch the grass out with pitchforks. Unlike the dry yellow grass of late summer, the tall green grass would get heavy in the truck bed. We’d start pitching it out, and when we dug down to the middle of the pile, it would be steaming. The decomposing grass got so hot that if you fell on it (which I did many times), it burned your skin.

On that particular day, my partner and I were in the transfer station before noon, unloading more than a full day’s worth of clippings. We were only half way through our list, and we knew we’d be back later with another full load. A couple other trucks from our company were unloading next to us, and trucks from other companies were streaming in as well. Everyone was having the same problem.

We usually started around 7 AM and finished around 3 or 3:30. That day, my partner and I finished the last yard around 5:00, and we had a long drive from Bethesda to Gaithersburg to dump our grass. We were on River Road, rolling up to a red light, in the left turn lane so we could make a U-turn. Neil’s truck was up ahead, already stopped at the light, and he had a mountain of wet, heavy grass piled high above the top of the cab. His mower was on top of that mountain. I have no idea how he got it up there, but I imagine he was cursing the whole time. The back of the truck was sagging so low that the wheels were almost scraping against the wheel wells.

I pulled up next to him, and I said, “Hey Neil!”

He was angry and tired, and his face was sunburnt.

I couldn’t help teasing him. “Did you get through that whole list?”

He said, “I have one more to go.” Then he held up his middle finger and repeated. “One.”

I said, “Where’s your partner?”

“Looking for a new job.”

That was about the most annoyed I’ve ever seen him. Then he started laughing.

When the light turned green, I started my U-turn. He hit the gas, and his overloaded Sanford and Son truck stalled. As I headed up the road in the other direction, I heard him yell, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!”

I didn’t see him again until the next day. He came in a little late, which was unusual for him, and he walked right up to me, laughing, and he said, “You know what happened yesterday? Right after I saw you? Like one minute after I saw you?”

“What?”

He told me he got the truck started again after the stall, and it took a while to get the thing up to speed because it was straining badly under the load. He was approaching a yellow light, which he wanted to run, because he wanted to finish that last lawn and get that miserable day over with as soon as possible. He sped up for the light, trying to squeeze through, and assumed the driver of the school bus in front of him would do the same. The school bus stopped, and Neil said that it wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes that he realized an overloaded truck takes a lot longer to stop than an empty one.

He was laughing when he told me, “I rear-ended that bus so hard, I snapped the truck right in half.” The frame of the truck broke just behind the cab, the mower flew up over the bus, and 2000 pounds of grass went all over the road. Neil wasn’t hurt, and there was no one on the bus but the driver. The cops were pissed about having to clean up all that grass in the middle of rush hour, and Neil wound up stuck at the accident scene for an hour or two. After that, he went out and got drunk.

Somehow, improbable things were always happening to him, and he would report them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. Like the time he found an envelope in the alley with $2000 or $3000 in it. Neil, the good Samaritan, turned the money over to the police, because he thought whoever had lost it really needed to have it back. He asked the cops what would happen to the money if no one claimed it, and they said in that case, it would be his.

A few months went by and no one claimed the money. When Neil tried to get it back, the cops said they were keeping it. He was pretty pissed about that. He said that if he ever found a big wad of cash again, he’d just put it in his pocket and keep his mouth shut. He also said, “You know, I wish I could have learned that lesson with, like, fifty dollars.”

In 1993 and 1994, Neil had his own landscaping business, and for several months, I was his sole employee. We liked working together, because we were both efficient. We’d spend the days out in Montgomery County, cutting grass and cleaning up yards, then pick up a six pack on the way back into DC.

I’d see him now and then in the evenings walking by the Fox and Hound on 17th Street, where I used to drink at the sidewalk tables with my friends. There was one point when we weren’t doing any work, and I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Maybe it was winter. I don’t remember. But when I finally did run into him and asked where he’d been, he said, “I was walking down the street, and I got this sharp pain in my side, and then I just doubled over and passed out. Right on the sidewalk. I woke up in the hospital, and they told me they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so they just took my appendix out. That must have been it, because I feel fine now.”

I think he was living down near 9th and O Streets around that time. He had bought a house in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. This was during or near the end of the crack epidemic in DC, when the city was the murder capital of the US. There was a crack house across the street, and Neil would watch the dealers and the addicts quite openly, and report to the police who was there and what they were doing. The cops raided the house so many times, they finally shut it down. The dealers and the users were so sick of being harassed, they just left.

Neil spent a lot of time cleaning up the yard, because he wanted the house to look good, and he wanted to provide a visual symbol that someone cared about the neighborhood, as well as an example that showed that if you try to make things better, they will eventually get better.

Anyone who lived in DC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s knows that it was a city of deep racial tension. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC was had the highest per-capita income of any major city in the US, and the highest poverty rate. Think about that. The white minority had more money than almost every other group in every other city in the US. The black majority had almost nothing. And there was a lot of mistrust and resentment on both sides. The city’s own mayor, Marion Barry, once publicly refused to plow the streets of Northwest DC after a blizzard (even though he had plowed out the rest of the city), because, as he put it, “Those people didn’t vote for me.”

Down at Ninth and O, Neil was the only white person in a tough neighborhood that was many years away from becoming gentrified. On the one hand, his convictions were powerful enough that he would risk his personal safety almost daily to shut down the crack house across the street. On the other hand, he often felt in danger. He told me that he used to weed his garden with one hand while he held a pistol in the other, just so people knew he had a gun. (And by the way, handguns were illegal in DC back then.) When his neighbors said hi, we would smile and wave back with his gun hand.

The gun, and the fact that he so frequently talked to the police in front of his house, led many of the neighbors to believe that he was a cop. After a while, they started addressing him as “Officer Neil.” He thought that was funny, but he also liked that it provided some protection, and made people less likely to mess with him.

He told me that one day, one of the neighbors came banging on his door, crying. She said her boyfriend had just beat her up, and she wanted Neil to come over and arrest him. Neil said he didn’t want people to know he wasn’t a cop, so he put his gun in his pocket and went over to the woman’s house and starting talking to her angry, violent boyfriend. He actually managed to calm the guy down. Anyone who knew Neil knows he could connect with anyone, in any situation, because he was a good listener, he was empathetic, and he was a straight talker. There was never any bullshit with him. He got the guy to leave, then he talked to the woman about filing a formal report and getting a restraining order.

Somewhere in this time frame, Neil was living with a guy named Brian, who I think was first guy Neil was really in love with. I don’t remember if that was just before Ninth and O, of if that was at Ninth and O. Neil and Brian had this giant Saint Bernard that was always slobbering on everything, and the only toy the dog would play with was a 16-pound bowling ball that he pushed around the house with his nose. The dog would nudge the ball down the basement stairs, and watch it thump down each step, one by one. Then he’d slowly turn his giant head to Neil, as if to say, get that for me, will you?

Over the course of twenty minutes, Neil must have hauled that bowling ball up the stairs a dozen times. His fingers kept slipping out of the holes because they were filled with dog slobber. Finally, he said to me, “You see how backwards this is? Most people throw the ball, and the dog has to get it. Some of my friends say this dog isn’t very bright, but you can see who’s running the show here.”

I only saw Neil upset twice in my life. Once was after he and Brian split up. He didn’t go into details, but I could tell the end of that relationship really hurt him. The other was on a drive home after a long day of landscaping, when we were both covered with dirt. We stopped at a little grocery store off of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and picked up a six-pack of Budweiser. We were drinking them on the drive back into city, joking and having a light-hearted conversation.

As we were going around Chevy Chase Circle, I mentioned something about him being left-handed. He got upset, suddenly and inexplicably. And he glanced over toward Blessed Sacrament, just east of the circle, and there was a lot of emotion in his voice when he said, “Those fucking nuns used to smack my knuckles with a ruler when they were teaching me to write. They said, you’re using the wrong hand. Use the other hand, like everyone else. Why couldn’t they just understand I was made that way?”

When I first met Neil, he was still in high school, still dating girls, or at least flirting with them, including my cousin, Regina. He was probably beginning to suspect by then that he was gay. I don’t know if coming out was a struggle for him, but I know that, on some level, the nuns got to him. If being left handed was unacceptable in the eyes of the God they represented, how much worse was it to be gay? When he finally chose to come out, he chose to be the person God made, and not the one anyone else was telling him to be.

The honesty that everyone who knew him could sense in everything he said and did started there, in his acceptance of himself, and pervaded every aspect of his character. He was honest to the point of trying to give back an envelope full of cash to someone he had never even met. And in the end, he was robbed and killed by people who just wanted to take from him the money he didn’t really care that much about. His first love, Brian, who was also an unusually generous and open person, came to same end just a few years ago. Someone killed him just to get his bank cards and empty out his accounts.

All I can think is, what the fuck? That would be Neil’s response too. I can hear him saying it. He had a perfect facial expression to go with that question. If you took a photograph of him when he uttered those words, you could show the photo to anyone and ask, “What is this man thinking?” And the viewer would respond without hesitation, “What the fuck?”

Neil, I am glad to have known you, and I am sorry you are gone. There is no replacement.