The Game is Afoot, Watson

In 1910, Oscar Heinrich opened a new business, The Heinrich Technical Laboratory, in the new high rise Savage-Scofield Building across from the prestigious Tacoma Hotel on A Street. The enterprise was the result of the 29 year old chemist’s growing fascination with criminology and more specifically crime scene science and detective work. By the time Heinrich died in 1953 he was known in the international press as America’s Sherlock Holmes and in a new book by Kate Winkler Dawson called American Sherlock; Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI , the Tacoma laboratory is described as “the nation’s first private crime lab”. The backstory gets even better as Edward Oscar Heinrich finds his Watson in the most unexpected place.

Heinrich. 1 pic
Oscar Heinrich

Back just a bit… Edward Oscar Heinrich grew up in a solid Victorian house at 2611 South 8th, just two blocks off Tacoma’s busy 6th Ave streetcar line.

Heinrich 2611 8th
Heinrich Childhood Home, 2611 S. 8th

At 18, Oscar studied and passed the State Pharmacy exam on his own, worked and saved for five years at a downtown drugstore and then attended University of California Berkeley where he earned a degree in Chemistry. While there he angled his way into courses on law, physics, mechanics and sanitary engineering. He also met Marion Allen, a chemistry classmate. They were married at Marion’s parent’s home in San Francisco in 1908 and the couple moved to back to Tacoma. Oscar got a good job with the City of Tacoma as a chemical and sanitation engineer. It was the progressive era and cities in the Northwest were applying new ideas about governance, technologies and science to their ambitions. Oscar went right to work on testing and improving water utilities and reservoirs, sewer and irrigation systems and Tacoma’s first chemical plants. He was quickly promoted to the new position of City Chemist.

Meanwhile on the upper floors of City Hall, Tacoma’s political machine was adapting to a new City Charter which replaced the old, very political, Mayor and 8 district councilmen system with an executive Mayor and 5 Commissioners, each in charge of a specific microscopes-vintage-microscope_1_a7bb9850a7072a82410dc856dd11391dbranch of government (Public Works, Public Safety, Utilities, Finance, and Controller).  The 1909 reorganization was followed by an election that swept fiery Angelo Fawcett into the Mayor’s office, and adopted reforms like recall, initiative and referendum just as women in Washington State were getting the vote. The new forces of Tacoma government would soon collide violently but under the new system Oscar found himself working with new colleagues in the police department and coroners office. He was becoming an investigator, probing mysteries involving complicated chemicals and solving crimes by discovering minute clues. The growing chaos at City Hall was becoming a distraction so he quit and along with Marion launched the start-up industrial chemical lab called The Heinrich Technical Laboratory.

Oscar & Marion Heinrich home, 3214 N. 30th

While the lab took in unexciting industrial contracts like mineral assays, water quality analysis and chemical purity tests, Oscar steered the focus toward his personal interest in criminology. From the start, the lab worked with police department and his contacts in local government and the legal community. Criminology and forensics were advancing in credibility within the court system and Oscar began diving into books and journals that went beyond the routine of a chemical lab. He read, referenced and cross referenced volumes on biology, fingerprinting, poisons, handwriting, ballistics and “photomicrography”. Some days he would spend more time in the reading room of Tacoma’s Public Library than he would at the lab. Across 11th from the library, in the Pierce County Courthouse, Oscar became a familiar figure in criminal cases. He appeared as an expert witness in an attempted murder case where he found microscopic cyanide crystals in the finely sugared crust of a lemon pie sent to an unsuspecting night watchman. The newspapers began calling him a scientific specialist in crime.

Perhaps Heinrich’s most spectacular early case came when Tacoma police called him to examine the scene of a woman’s suicide. He found her on the kitchen floor slumped

1920 clip

behind a wood stove, a revolver next to her and a bullet hole in the wall. Open and shut. Oscar arrived with his kit complete with magnifying glass, tweezers, dental prob, measuring tape and string. He immediately noted dust in the bullet hole proving it was not fresh. He squatted, knelled and crawled over every inch of the scene and discovered two important clues. There was a nearly invisible groove in the wall with a fragment of lead and nearby a wiped spatter of blood. Using the string and his study of ballistics, Oscar traced the trajectory of the bullet back to the location of a shooter. The husband was arrested and convicted of murder. Oscar was the star witness.

By 1914, The Heinrich Technical Laboratory was working almost exclusively on crime related projects, courtroom evidence and the practice of “chemical jurisprudence”. As one of the city’s most intense and specialized library users,

Tacoma Carnegie Library b.1907

Oscar became particularly interested in the selection of a new City Librarian and in March 1914 he arrived. John Boynton Kaiser was six years younger than Oscar Heinrich but they shared an uncanny list of common interests-law, criminology, progressive ideas about government, Classical literature and of course books. Kaiser proved to be just as energetic as Heinrich and the men  developed a lifelong friendship that became interwoven with a partnership in solving crimes.

John B. Kaiser applied himself to building a Public Library based on the progressive idea that clear information needs to be provided to not only the people living in the city but

John Boynton Kaiser

those running the city. He bought books and subscribed to journals for the courts and police department, public works, the health department, utilities and social services. He pushed for the first branch libraries, put libraries within public high schools and during WW1 created a lending library for soldiers at Camp Lewis. His first book, written while in Tacoma and still in print today, deals with Libraries and Civil Service. But his most interesting work is called “Comprachicos”. It deals with the author Victor Hugo’s exploration of law and justice in novels like Les Misérables, where the complexity of crime and  punishment in policeman Javert’s pursuit of every man Jean Valjean is one of the great moral parables in literature. To say Kaiser took a deep dive into the murky London fog of right and wrong is an understatement.

Kaiser also found time to write a weekly literary column in the Daily Ledger under the pen name “Diogenes”. The ancient Greek philosopher and cynic is famously portrayed holding a lantern searching for an honest man. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, silence and secrets are found  in the famous Diogenes Club which appears in several of  Conan Doyle’s mysteries. By 1915, it was common to find Heinrich and Kaiser whispering about their latest case in the director’s office of the Tacoma Avenue Carnegie Library with newspaper articles, reference books, maps and collected materials spread out under their gaze, like their own private club. The game was afoot for the Tacoma based Sherlock and Watson and in 1917 the stakes began to change…….


To be continued……..Part 2





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