The continuing story of how two Tacomans became real life versions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson…Part 1
Oscar Heinrich had resigned from his position as Tacoma’s City Chemist, in part due to the reorganization and building turmoil in City Hall. Even though the various branches of government were managed by elected commissioners after the elections in 1910, the new Mayor stubbornly believed he controlled the City. The self declared overlord was a feisty old political warhorse named Angelo Fawcett who ran on an “open city” ticket in
the last city election to exclude women voters. Open City was a euphemism for City Hall tolerance of adult entertainment in sections of the downtown, backroom payola for political bosses and a flexible enforcement of certain laws by the police and courts. Under the new City Charter, commissioners of Public Safety, Utilities and Finance were expected to clean things up. Stop gambling and drinking joints from paying off cops and officials, end bribes for city construction projects and lucrative contracts and at least provide basic protections and sanitation in the red light districts and shabby boarding houses. Understandably, Mayor Fawcett was unhappy with the restraints on his control of City Hall especially since temperance was being openly talked about and women were about to get the vote.
In a special election on April 18, 1911, Mayor Fawcett was abruptly removed from office using the new recall provision of the City Charter. After being elected with 6,630 votes just a year earlier, 14,549 votes were cast in favor of his removal from office. He was replaced by W. W. Seymour who, upon taking office, noted ex-mayor Fawcett’s particular hostility toward the freshly built Public Library. Oscar Heinrich had baled out of his city job at the right time.
The opposite was true for John Boynton Kaiser as he arrived in March 1914 to work for the City of Tacoma as City Librarian. A month later, on April 23rd, recalled mayor Angelo Fawcett was re-elected Mayor and he brought little sympathy for the Library and its new young Librarian. Within a year, the Mayor picked a fight with the Library Board, refusing to approve the reimbursement of Kaiser’s travel expenses for a trip to the American Library Association gathering on the East Coast (Kaiser became president of the organization). To support the authority of the Library Board, John Kaiser sued Mayor Fawcett for $236.15. In May 1917, after several court appearances and an appeal, Kaiser won and a writ of mandamus was issued by the court ordering Mayor Fawcett to repay the librarian.
That same May, a matter of international importance and intrigue came to light in a case Oscar Heinrich had been working on for month’s. Oscar and Marion never lost touch with the bay area where her parents lived and they both had friends at UC Berkeley. In 1916, Oscar was invited by Berkeley’s Police Chief, August Vollmer, who had developed a reputation for modern police methods, to help design a series of courses in criminology for his police officers. Kaiser collaborated in creating reading lists, curriculum materials and lecture topics while in hush tones they discussed another, more secret matter in San Francisco.
During the early years of the First World War in Europe, Germany began conspiring with militant independence groups in India in an attempt to weaken and distract Britain. What became known as the Hindu Ghadar Conspiracy, involved an Indian ex-patriot revolutionary party based on the west coast with headquarters in San Francisco. Coded messages, military secrets, guns and money were passing back and forth between the revolutionary Ghadar Party and the German government while the allies were using confidential agents and informants to intercept communications and build a criminal case.
This was shady, international spy stuff involving the British and American governments on the eve of the United States entering World War 1. Intelligence agencies and local police brought Oscar Heinrich in to analyze and interpret the paper communications and evidence they collected on the conspiracy.
Oscar turned immediately to his friend John Kaiser to help decipher the various dialects and codes used in the letters and telegrams. Just as Kaiser was celebrating his legal victory over Mayor Fawcett in Tacoma, newspapers in San Francisco and the world were breaking news that Federal grand jury indictments
and arrests were being made in a shadowy conspiracy to overthrow the British Raj in India. When the trial started in November of 1917, 32 plotters were charged with violating America’s neutrality including the German Consul General in San Francisco, Hindu members of the Ghadr Party led by a journalist named Ram Chandra, and a number of socially prominent American supporters.
Oscar Heinrich was soon in the headlines as a key expert witness. The trial started in November 1917, and his testimony took several days as he meticulously went over the results of his investigation using enlarged photographs and projection screens. The jury, crowded courtroom and pool of reporters followed closely as he described the microscopic analysis of handwriting, tracing of exotic chemicals in the inks from various corners of the world and the unique, unmistakable characteristics of individual typewriter keys. Heinrich’s laboratory reports and expert testimony on the witness stand were a clincher for the prosecution and the Jury found all but one of the defendants guilty. The trial was made even more sensational when one of the defendants, Ram Singh, somehow produced a revolver in the courtroom just as closing arguments were beginning and shot Ram Chandra, killing him before being killed himself by a U.S. Marshal.
The notoriety of the Hindu-German conspiracy trial along with an offer to teach new criminology courses at UC lured Oscar and his family away from Tacoma to a new home in Berkeley. They moved in 1918 but Oscar and Kaiser continued a weekly, some times daily exchange of letters, telegrams and visits. Both men left their papers and correspondence to the UC Berkeley archives and together they create a rich and detailed narrative of their personal and professional relationship. They would go on to puzzle together over some of America’s most famous crimes. John Kaiser remained the Tacoma City Librarian until 1924 when his writing on Library science carried him to teaching positions at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and even Berkeley where his old friend Oscar Heinrich kept his criminology laboratory.
An unnerving exchange of letters passed between them in 1921 while Kaiser was still Tacoma Librarian. Heinrich had been brought into a scandalous manslaughter case where the silent movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
was accused of fatally assaulting a young woman in a San Francisco hotel room during a wild drunken party. It was during prohibition and the 27 year old actress died from crushing internal injuries. The District Attorney called on Oscar to examine the crime scene, help police assemble evidence and help with the investigation. As the tabloid story unfolded, Arbuckel’s defense launched their own investigation, employing the Pinkerton agency to track the case being made against the millionaire silent star. Oscar made his usual contact with John Kaiser regarding the case but he also noted that his coming and going from the sealed crime scene in the St. Francis Hotel felt suspicious. In a following letter he told Kaiser that he was being watched. “I think I lost him about 2 o’clock. He picked me up at the Hall of Justice and stayed with me as long as he dared, but he realized that he was caught and dropped out.”
Just a year before in 1920, a young WW1 veteran had departed Cushman Hospital in Tacoma recovering from tuberculosis and destine to become a master of crime writing and detective fiction. It was the writer Dashiell Hammettwho would go on to create the fictional San Francisco private detective Sam Spade and the noir masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon. Before his literary success however, Hammett returned to his pre-war profession as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. In 1921 he was in San Francisco assigned to a case involving the movie star Fatty Arbuckle. No… it couldn’t have been……
American Sherlock, Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI, Kate Winkler Dawson. 2020. Putnam.
The Wizard of Berkeley, Eugene B. Block. 1958. Coward-McCann, Inc.
Heinrich (Edward Oscar) Papers, University of California Berkeley, Bancroft Library Archives
John Boynton Kaiser papers, University of California Berkeley, Bancroft Library Archives
Tacoma Public Library, Northwest Room & Image Archives