Skip to content

The William J. Burns Detective Agency

16 December, 2016

The Author encountered these signs for the William J. Burns Detective Agency on two different occasions, both in Northeast Philadelphia.

Much to the Author’s delight, the man behind the sign, Mr. William J. Burns, and his Detective Agency have quite an interesting and slightly unsavory history! You are welcome, Dear Reader, to accompany the Author on her dive into archives to learn more about this fellow and his involvement in noteworthy scandals further below.


In a former ball-bearing factory in Frankford, Philadelphia


On a garage door in Olde Kensington, Philadelphia

William J. Burns, born in 1861, was known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes”. After success in the Secret Service, he started the William J. Burns International Detective Agency in 1909 and quickly gained national fame thanks to involvement in cases such as the 1910 Los Angeles Times building bombing, the Wheatland Hop Riot and the Murder of Mary Phagan.

In 1921, William Burns was appointed as the Director of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the F.B.I.), no doubt thanks to the influence of his childhood friend Harry Daugherty, who was President William Harding’s Attorney General. “Billy” Burns returned the favor in kind throughout his tenure.

One notable occasion: Daugherty and President Harding were at a raging house party hosted by Ned McLean, publisher and owner of The Washington Post. Harding, Daugherty, and other West Wing chums and hangers-on regularly went to shindigs at McLean’s, but on one evening the debauchery turned fatal: in the early hours of the morning, the dinner table was enthusiastically cleared so the visiting chorus girls (a euphemism, perhaps) could dance on it. Plates, glasses and bottles were thrown with great vigor and one woman was hit in the head by a projectile. She was knocked unconscious and died a few days later. Billy Burns covered up the entire episode.

Burns took some of his strong-arming and intimidation techniques from the Detective Agency and brought them to the B.O.I.. This eventually lead to his downfall, as he was forced to resign less than three years into his tenure after his B.O.I. agents intimidated newspaper journalists who were portraying the B.O.I. in a negative light. Tut tut. He was succeeded by J. Edgar Hoover.

Freed of his governmental duties, he returned to his detective agency and soon found himself in another spot of bother: his agency was hired by an oil company executive on trial for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government (the Teapot Dome Scandal). Burns put 14 of his agents on the case to “investigate” (read: intimidate) the jurors. The plot was discovered and Burns was sentenced to 15 days in jail and his son, William Sherman Burns, to pay at $1,000 fine. Papa Burns was later cleared by a Supreme Court ruling.  He later moved to Florida and published detective novels.

Well, that was fun! For further reading, the Author recommends Front-Page Detective by William R. Hurt and The Teapot Dome Scandal by Laton McCaryney (which is currently on the Author’s bedside table).


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    3 January, 2017 6:45 am

    An interesting scoundrel. Sounds like stuff from Broadway Empire (or I suppose the other way around).

  2. Gabriel Aguilar permalink
    2 October, 2018 6:55 pm

    I have one of these detective agency stickers on my house. I always wondered who he was.


  1. Her Clever Game | Captured and Exposed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: