Private Detectives

Banner photo is of the Police Station on Court St in 1952.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

I think it’s best to come clean and admit that I was a detective-novel addict growing up.   From the gentleman sleuths to the hard-boiled gumshoes to the sweet, little old ladies who turned up bodies at garden parties, I read them all.   Once, out of desperation for new material, I even read one of that series where a cat solves murders.  (It was at that point that I realized I had to draw the line somewhere.)  But of them all, I loved the hard-boiled breed best and, let me tell you, no one wrote them better than Dashiell Hammett.  Is it any wonder?  Not only did he give the world the tough-talking, wise-cracking, rumpled detective with the bottle in his desk drawer – an archetype that so many others have since attempted to make their own – but he’d actually been a real-life detective himself.  From 1915 to 1922, Hammett had been a Pinkerton man, and it was his experience in the field that helped him mould the worlds of Sam Spade, the Continental Op and Nick Charles.

Discovering and falling in love with his work as a pretty impressionable teenager, I’d say he enriched (corrupted?) my vocabulary more than any other writer.  He also really made me want to grow up so I could try drinking Manhattans in club chairs. (See?  Corrupted.) I think part of me really believed – or rather hoped – that the adult world awaiting me would be like his.  Of course, I wasn’t crazy enough to wish for his thieves, thugs and murderers, but I’m truly sorry his fast-talking, wise guys never quite materialized. Anyhow, recalling this recently, I got to wondering who the flesh and blood detectives of early Toronto were and set about digging them up…

Our first P.I. was a man named Charles Bluett and boy, was he a doozy.  When he first arrived on the Toronto scene in 1873, he was listed as a night watchman.  I can’t say what, or for whom, he was ‘watching’, but there was something in the work that must’ve stirred the inner sleuth in him because the next year he listed himself as a “Private Detective.”  It was a novel line of work at the time and probably didn’t drum up a lot of business initially and so he apparently moonlighted at it while maintaining his night watch work.  But it wasn’t too long before he started to make a name for himself – though not always for a job well done:

Jan 6 1877 Chas Bluett The Times shooting
I don’t care if she did run a cat house – you shouldn’t be shooting at dames. From The Times, January 6th 1877.

It probably didn’t help that he apparently had a weakness for that old detective prop, the bottle:

Jul 29 1881 Chas Bluett drunk arrest Toronto Daily Mail
Three cops?  That’s plenty drunk. From the Toronto Daily Mail, July 29th, 1881
Trinity Square 1875 Not that I would, but if I were going to get all drunk and disorderly I wouldn't do it here.
Trinity Square as seen in 1875.
This really doesn’t look like the sort of place you want to be carousing at 3AM.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Add to this a serious dust-up with one of his own guys and you start to get the picture of a troubled man.

From the Quebec Daily Telegraph May 26 1882

But ol’ Charlie pulled through and by the early 1880s he was getting some good press for being a detective who could collar a guy on the lam:

Charles Bluett Toronto Daily Mail April 15 1884
This is pretty wild.  An Amish man makes off with  $40, 000 and is easily traced because of his distinctive garb.  You could say he was undone by his lack of buttons (sorry)  … I hate to judge, but his piety seems to have been a little hit-and-miss.  From the Toronto Daily Mail, April 15 1884.

But by the late 1880s, Bluett was no longer the only gumshoe for hire in Hogtown.   A handful of detective agencies had opened up and suddenly a body had choices if a snoop was needed:

1887 TCD Detectives
Detective Agency listings in the 1887 Toronto City Directory

Of these, two were former police detectives – John Reid and J. W. Murray.  They both did a great deal of business as P.I.s, but J. W. Murray’s investigations were so splashy and well-covered in the press that in 1904 his “Memoirs of a Great Detective, incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray” was published.  Thanks to this remarkable book we get a clear, unsentimental description of the man himself:

Memoirs of a Great Detective Chapter 1

We also learn that he was well-known by another name:

Ol' Never Let Go
You get the feeling “Ol’ Never-let-go” might’ve actually been “Ol’ Made-this-up-himself.”

In any case, J. W. Murray’ sleuthing skills were so exceptional that they are still celebrated on TV today, albeit under a different name – the Murdoch Mysteries.

By the 1890s and early 1900s, the bulk of Toronto’s private detectives were former cops. Continuing the trend was John Hodgins whose Canadian Detective Agency and Inquiry Exchange operated out of the beautiful (and long-gone) Toronto Arcade.

1891 TCD Canadian Detective Agency
Toronto City Directory, 1891.
The interior of the Toronto Arcade in 1885.   It’s a bizarre thing to say but, of all the Toronto buildings torn down before my time, I miss this one the most. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

The man himself might disagree with me, but I’d say that one of Hodgins’ biggest cases was the Toronto hunt for the Pitezel girls, abducted by Chicago serial killer H. H. Holmes in 1894.   (If you’ve never heard of Holmes, I don’t recommend reading up on him.  I did and felt ill for days afterwards.)  John Hodgins put in a lot of legwork searching for them, though it was eventually American detective Frank Geyer and Toronto cop Alfred Cuddy who located the remains.  …yeah, it’s that kind of story.

Another of our cops-turned-detective was a man named Hugh McKinnon.  Born in Vaughan, ON in 1843, he eventually moved to neighbouring Hamilton and joined the police.  While there he became big stuff for his role in the arrest of the Black Donnellys, though he himself ended up being charged and tried for his methods, which amounted to kidnapping and assault.  Specifically, the claim is that he hung Will Donnelly and his associate William Atkinson by their thumbs to get them to talk.  Frankly, that’s the kind of detail that gives me a headache because I can never understand how you’d orchestrate such a thing.  Anyhow …

Hugh McKinnon was also quite a celebrated athlete and had won numerous medals in Caledonian games (mostly tossing heavy stuff) throughout North America.  Add to this his reputation for fearlessness in apprehending bad guys and you can see how he became quite the golden boy in Hamilton and was eventually given the job of Chief of Police.   Life was pretty grand for him alright – at least until January 8th, 1895…

Unfortunately for ol’ McKinnon, reporters at the Hamilton Spectator noticed that the Chief hadn’t been around for a bit.  Five days, in fact.  Toronto newspapers took up the story and found that he’d been holed up at the Grand Union Hotel with a Mrs. Gould and her sister.  The three had registered under assumed names, with McKinnon listed as a Mr. H. B. Collins from New Haven, Connecticut.

Grand Union Hotel
The Grand Union Hotel at Front and Simcoe, as seen in 1910.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Needless to say, Hamilton citizens were not impressed with their Chief – certainly his wife wasn’t – and he was forced to resign.  But as they say, it’s hard to keep a good man down and within the year McKinnon popped up as a private detective with offices in both Toronto and Hamilton.  This would appear to have been one of his bigger jobs:

Hugh McKinnon Aug 12 1898 Sarnia Observer
McKinnon doing circus duty.  Hope he wasn’t making peanuts. … I’m really sorry about that one.  From the Sarnia Observer, August 12, 1898.

Despite this, he might’ve found it hard to recover from the hotel-room scandal because in 1901, McKinnon moved all the way to Dawson City.  There he became an officer in charge of preventing illegal alcohol distilleries and distribution – what was known at the time as a “whiskey detective.”   Unfortunately for McKinnon, this return to public service didn’t last long as he died suddenly from a massive heart attack in 1904.

By this time, back in Toronto, small-time private detectives were fading out.  In their place, big operations were moving in.  The Pinkertons were here, as were agencies with grand names like the Dominion Secret Service Bureau and Detective Agency.  Not to be outdone by the Dominion, there was also the Empire Secret Service Bureau.  I imagine that these offices handled much the same kind of work as the small fries, but their size and corps of operatives allowed them to take on much bigger jobs.  One agency in particular was none too shy about spelling out what kind of work they were happiest to do:

Nobles 06 TCD
Think you may have a union brewing? Well the noble Noble’s is here to help – happily supplying undercover sneaks to collect information to break up any organizing. But please note, they draw the line at sordid divorce cases. From the Toronto City Directory, 1906.

Noble’s Detective Agency certainly had takers for this particular service.   Most notable was Canada Foundry which hired Noble’s to monitor the International Moulders Union during  their strike in 1903.  They were asking for a 9 hour day, if you can believe it – the kind of thing that really burned the bosses’ britches.  And so Canada Foundry had imported scab moulders from the States.  Noble’s job was to protect them and also plant a detective in the Union’s ranks.  They even arranged a neat little trick where they got a couple of the strikebreakers to approach the union with the claim that they were quitting and needed some help getting out of town.  When the strikers offered them assistance, Canada Foundry swooped in and charged them with contempt, claiming they were “inducing the breach of the injunction.”  Or meddling.  Happily for the union, the judge didn’t buy it:

Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 2.10.19 PM
“The Chancellor finds that the action in question was set on foot by a detective or ex-police officer employed by the plaintiffs-” From the Montreal Gazette, December 12, 1903.

Of course, this was just a tiny victory and didn’t deter Noble’s (or other large agencies) from building their reputations as go-tos for Union strikebreaking.  In fact, it was this very aspect of the Pinkerton’s that caused Dashiell Hammett himself to leave the agency.

And so Toronto’s detective agencies continued.  Outside of expanding with branches and operatives across the country, probably the only real changes came with advances in snooping technology.  They even had one of those hilarious – I mean, interesting – industry periodicals where they advertised the newest gear and techniques:

Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 3.43.15 PM
I would’ve loved this when I was a kid. I went through a lot of my mom’s bobby pins trying to pick locks. I blame Nancy Drew – she made it sound easy. From the International Police, Detective, Sheriff, Constable and Identification Directory, 1921.
Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 3.52.22 PM
Never mind delivering justice – you can win fame and money!  From the International Police, Detective, Sheriff, Constable and Identification Directory, 1921.
Screenshot 2016-03-05 at 4.02.47 PM
A yeggman? But sure, who wouldn’t want to learn how to handle an obnoxious bad man.  From the International Police, Detective, Sheriff, Constable and Identification Directory, 1921.

I suspect that most of Toronto’s early detective agencies folded at some point or, like Pinkertons, have since been absorbed by larger international security companies – as they’re called now.  As for the original sites of their offices, you might have noticed I don’t have any current photos to show you.  Not only is Charlie Bluett’s building gone, but the whole street has disappeared too.  Hodgins’ Toronto Arcade was torn down in the 50’s and the others’ suffered similarly.   In a way, I guess you can say that the city has been pretty good at covering their tracks.

8 thoughts on “Private Detectives

  1. Despite my love for true crime, I could never get into detective novels (or Manhattans)! But I have to admit that H H Holmes was a bridge too far for me too. I had nightmares for days after I read that Erik Larson book. The case involving the Amish guy reminds me of John Tawell, a Quaker who murdered his mistress, and was caught due to a combination of his distinctive religious dress, and an early version of the telegraph. And who wouldn’t want to learn to “handle” “obnoxious bad men?” I’ve certainly come across a few of those…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, despite my burning desire to try one, Manhattans never stuck with me. Somehow I ended up being a rye (neat) kinda girl – which I like to pretend is all P.I. cool too.
      Ugh, H. H. Holmes was too much for me too – just thinking of his ugly mug makes me sick.
      Wow, I’ve never heard of Tawell. What’s with these guys being so morally corrupt but still wanting to adhere to the dress code?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I used to own The Devil in the White City, and I’m not generally one to get rid of books (I tend to hoard them even if I didn’t like them that much), but that one I had to give away as soon as I finished. Just having it around turned my stomach. There’s a book about John Tawell called The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, which is much less stomach turning. I think his whole deal was that he wasn’t very good at adhering to religion; I think the Quakers had already thrown him out but agreed to take him back on “Quaker probation” on account of his wife being such a good Quaker. Clearly they shouldn’t have.

        Liked by 1 person

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