They say that truth is stranger than fiction. While storybook detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade are well-known to the public, few of their real-life counterparts enjoy such fame. That’s a shame since there are plenty of singular sleuths with fascinating careers worthy of mention.
10. Leonard “Nipper” Read
In 1946, Leonard “Nipper” Read tried to join the police force in his hometown of Nottingham, England. Unfortunately for him, the city had a minimum height requirement of six feet and the diminutive Read was rejected. A year later, he moved to London, which was less restrictive, and became an officer with the Metropolitan Police.
Read’s first major case happened in 1963 when he was part of a Scotland Yard team sent to Buckinghamshire to help investigate the Great Train Robbery. Although Bruce Reynolds was considered the mastermind of the operation, Nipper believed the true architect was an Irishman named Mickey who meticulously devised robberies and sold the plans to interested gangs.
Read’s biggest challenge came in 1964 when he was offered a taskforce to “have a go” at taking down The Firm, the East End gang headed by the infamous Kray Twins. Five years later, Ronnie and Reggie Kray were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
9. Charlie Siringo, The Cowboy Detective
Born in 1855 in Matagorda County, Texas, Charlie Siringo spent two decades as a Pinkerton detective. He specialized in working undercover and took part in some of the agency’s most notorious cases.
Siringo had a long and varied career which saw him investigate rustlers, killers, assassination attempts, and labor unions from Alaska to Mexico. He is well-remembered for his role in the Coeur d’Alene labor strike of 1892. It erupted in violence after miners discovered that the Pinkerton had infiltrated their union and was routinely sending back information to the mine owners.
Siringo had mixed feelings about this work. On one hand, he sympathized with the workers but, at the same time, he realized that the leadership of labor unions was in the hands of anarchists like George Pettibone. The latter would be implicated in the assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg.
Charles Siringo started pursuing Butch Cassidy’s infamous Wild Bunch following the 1899 Wilcox Train Robbery. He spent four years, travelled 25,000 miles and helped capture some of the gang’s most ruthless members such as Kid Curry. He was finally called off the case once Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to South America.
Siringo had one more memorable moment in his career when he saved lawyer Clarence Darrow from a lynch mob. Darrow would later defend teacher John T. Scopes in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
8. Dave Toschi
San Francisco detective Dave Toschi was instantly recognizable when he walked into a room thanks to the snappy bowties he liked to wear alongside plaid suits and trench coats. He became an inspiration for iconic movie cops of the ’60s and ’70s and, when he was on the clock, also investigated the infamous Zodiac Killer.
Toschi joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1953 after serving in the Korean War. He entered the hunt for the Zodiac in 1969 after the murder of Paul Stine, the killer’s only known victim in San Francisco. The case “gnawed at him” and gave him an ulcer. Toschi would visit the scene of Stine’s murder for many years afterwards hoping he might spot an overlooked clue that might lead to the identity of the notorious serial killer.
Although not as famous as the Zodiac killings, Toschi also investigated and helped solve the Zebra murders. These were a series of racially motivated slayings from the early 70s by a group called the “Death Angels” that claimed, at least, 15 victims.
Toschi’s unique style caught the eye of Hollywood. Clint Eastwood partially based “Dirty” Harry Callahan on him while Steve McQueen borrowed his penchant for wearing a quick-draw holster for his character in Bullitt.
The extra attention went to Toschi’s head a little. In an “ill-advised indulgence,” the detective sent anonymous letters to the San Francisco Chronicle praising his own work. This got him booted off the case nine years after Stine’s murder.
7. Kate Warne
In 1856, Kate Warne was a 23-year-old widow looking for employment. One day, she entered the Chicago office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and spoke with Allan Pinkerton himself. He was surprised to find out that she wasn’t there for a clerical job, but rather for the position of detective advertised in the newspaper.
At first, Pinkerton didn’t want a female detective, but Warne argued that she could obtain information in ways men could not. She could either befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspects or convince the men themselves to boast of their actions. Pinkerton was swayed and Kate Warne became his first female detective.
Warne’s first big case took place in 1858. Someone was embezzling funds from the Adams Express Company and Pinkerton suspected the Montgomery office manager, Nathan Maroney. Kate went undercover, befriended his wife and got the evidence which led to his conviction.
The female detective was praised for her role in investigating the Baltimore Plot, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate then-President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Warne used her undercover talents to pose as a Southern belle with secessionist sympathies, infiltrate social gatherings and collect information for Pinkerton. We’ll never know if the threat was real or not, but Lincoln made his inauguration thanks to the Pinkertons.
6. Jerome Caminada
Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the world’s most famous detective and there have long been debates over who served as inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character. The author typically pointed the finger at Scottish surgeon and lecturer Joseph Bell, as well as his compatriot Sir Henry Littlejohn. Doyle also hailed the few fictional detectives that came before Holmes such as Auguste Dupin and Monsieur Lecoq. But there were also real-life investigators who resembled Sherlock Holmes enough that they came to be regarded as inspirations.
Jerome Caminada was one of them. He worked as a detective in Manchester. He gained national prominence during the mid 1880s, shortly before the first appearance of Doyle’s detective. He wore disguises during cases and employed a network of unofficial informers similar to Holmes’s irregulars. After Caminada retired from the police force in 1899, he became a consulting detective and worked cases all over the country. He even had his own “Moriarty”-style archrival in the form of one Bob Horridge.
Caminada’s finest moment as a detective came in 1889 during a case dubbed the “Manchester Cab Mystery.” Businessman John Fletcher hailed a cab outside Manchester Cathedral and left with an unidentified young man. An hour later when the driver stopped, he found Fletcher dead and his companion gone.
Using clues, deduction, and his knowledge of the criminal underworld, Caminada identified the killer as 18-year-old Charlie Parton. He had a past of using chloral hydrate to rig illegal fights by drugging the fighters. The detective believed Parton also used it to occasionally subdue and rob people. The chloral hydrate combined with Fletcher’s love of gin resulted in a poisonous mixture which caused his death.
5. Chang Apana
Speaking of fictional detectives, there are few more divisive than Charlie Chan. The Chinese-American sleuth appeared in six novels written by American author Earl Derr Biggers, and dozens of movie and TV adaptations. Some regard him as racist and offensive since he was a stereotype and was often portrayed by white actors in yellowface. Others see him in a more positive light since Charlie Chan was one of the first Asian characters in Hollywood who broke away from the “evil Chinaman” trope. What’s relevant to us is that he was inspired by real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana.
Born Chang Ah Ping, he moved back to China when he was three years old but returned to Hawaii when he was 10. He joined the force in 1898 and became a detective in 1916. He carried a bullwhip instead of a gun. He learned to use it while working as a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) before becoming a cop.
Chang mostly worked Chinatown and dealt with many smuggling and gambling cases. Because he was multilingual, he developed a network of informants inaccessible to other cops. There are many outlandish stories of his adventures on the force. He was once thrown out of a second-story window and landed on his feet. He had a scar above his right eye from a fight with a Japanese leper armed with a sickle. He once arrested 40 gamblers at once, single-handed, wielding only his trusty whip. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
4. “Jigsaw” John P. St. John
John P. St. John was one of the most tenacious and prolific officers in American history. He served the Los Angeles Police Department for 51 years, 43 of them as a homicide detective. He investigated around 1,500 murders and solved over 1,000 of them. By the time he retired in 1993, his seniority on the force earned him the privilege of carrying badge No. 1.
St. John gained the nickname “Jigsaw John” early on in his career when he worked a dismemberment case. It stuck for decades because other officers thought St. John had a knack for putting clues together like a puzzle.
One of John’s first cases remains one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history – the murder of Elizabeth Short, known posthumously as the “Black Dahlia.” It was the first in a long list of infamous killings that St. John tackled as a homicide detective for the LAPD. He investigated serial killers like Harvey Glatman, the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, the Hillside Stranglers, and the Grim Sleeper. In 1982, St. John became only the second recipient of the Police Department’s Distinguished Service Medal for his eight-year investigation that led to the capture of William Bonin, one of the Freeway Killers.
3. Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith
With the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919, Prohibition came to the United States. A new agency was needed to enforce the law and, thus, the Bureau of Prohibition was born. Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith were its top detectives.
Since the new unit was hiring, Isidor Einstein tried his luck as it paid better than his previous job as a postal clerk. The chief didn’t want him. Einstein was middle-aged, short, and stocky. Not exactly Bureau material. However, Izzy convinced him that that was an asset, not a hindrance, since bootleggers wouldn’t suspect him.
Izzy was right. There were times when he could knock on the door of a speakeasy with his badge on display and say he was a Prohibition agent. People would still let him in and give him a drink because they thought it was a gag. Other times he would carry a prop like a jug of milk or a jar of pickles. As he put it, who would suspect that “a fat man with pickles was an agent?”
Soon after being hired, Izzy convinced his friend Moe Smith to stop selling cigars and join him as an agent. Neither one of them had any law enforcement experience. Yet, they were responsible for almost 5,000 arrests with a 95 percent conviction rate.
Izzy and Moe liked to wear disguises to gain entry to speakeasies. If the bar was near a hospital, they would wear white coats. If it was a lawyer bar, they would come in carrying heavy law texts. Sometimes they dressed as husband and wife.
The duo’s success was their undoing. They were fired after five years with the Bureau because everyone else resented them for their skill and popularity.
2. William J. Burns
Many real-life detectives have been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, but William J. Burns was called “America’s Sherlock Holmes” by none other than Doyle himself.
Burns started his law enforcement career as an assistant to a private eye. He then became a Secret Service agent. His success led to him opening the William J. Burns International Detective Agency. Several high-profile cases and a few notable connections led to him becoming Director of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the precursor of the FBI, between 1921 and 1924.
Burns investigated two infamous early cases of domestic terrorism. In 1910, his agency looked into the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building which killed 21 people. Burns went undercover with the anarchist movement and arrested brothers John and James McNamara. Ten years later, he investigated the Wall Street Bombing. That case remains unsolved, although not for lack of trying. Burns Agency detectives went undercover all the way to the Soviet Union in an attempt to unearth the culprits.
Burns’s reputation took a severe hit when he was implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal. Detectives from his agency were hired to investigate the jurors in the trial of oil tycoon Harry Ford Sinclair. He was forced to resign from the BOI and was replaced by J. Edgar Hoover. Burns retired to Florida and took up writing detective stories.
1. Eugène Vidocq
Eugène François Vidocq started out on a life of crime which seemed destined to end with a trip to the gallows. However, he eventually switched sides and used his keen understanding of the criminal mind to combat it.
Vidocq’s crime-fighting career started in 1809, shortly before his 34th birthday. He had, once again, been arrested, except this time he offered his services as an informant. His skill and reputation made him a formidable spy. Less than two years later, he was released and continued to work undercover on the outside.
Vidocq lobbied hard for a plainclothes unit and obtained it in 1812. It was successful and, a year later, Napoleon turned it into a national police force called La Sûreté Nationale under Vidocq’s leadership. The detective opened more branches around the country and kept expanding his underworld network of informants. He also employed innovative techniques such as early ballistics and plaster casts of shoe prints.
Not just an officer of the law, Vidocq was a celebrity in his own right. He befriended writers such as Balzac and Victor Hugo and used a ghostwriter to pen his memoirs. Other policemen were not fans of Vidocq, not only because he always stole the spotlight, but because they believed he always remained a criminal. They thought he not only took bribes from other interlopers, but even “solved” his own crimes.
In 1833, Vidocq left the force and opened the “Office of Information” which came to be regarded as the world’s first known private detective agency.