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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).


Quintain: the Medieval Courting Game

7 December, 2016

This 15th Century French roundel depicts, if you can believe it, a courting game. What romance!

The game, Quintain, was originally a training exercise for jousting. It evolved into a flirting technique that seems more Middle School than Middle Ages. Here are the rules of Quintain: a seated person holds up one leg, placing his/her foot against the foot of a standing person. One person tries to upend the other.

The Author wonders if, in this particular game of Quintain, the maiden with the flaxen hair maiden might be cheating by holding her right leg. The fellow with the flaxen cap seems to be accusing her of doing so.

Perhaps not the most successful courting game.


Met Cloisters, New York City (2016)

An Eames Rebus Letter

18 November, 2016

You might know of Charles Eames for his famous chair , but he was also quite the clever fellow with phonograms. He wrote some very charming, if somewhat indecipherable (for the Author, at least) rebus letters to his daughter Lucia. Can you decipher it? The Author presents her attempt below.charles-eames-rebus-letter-lucia


I am so sorry that I cannot take you to school. Are you drinking milk like a saint.

[the Author really has no clue what the last sentence is. Any guesses?]



Carpenter Apes

11 November, 2016

Three industrious apes construct a table in this late 15th Century German glass roundel at the Met Cloisters. It’s a rather whimsical scene to be found next to roundels of souls being tormented in hell, the crucifixion of various saints and tales from the Bible.


Met Cloisters, New York City (2016)

Water Fountain Dragons

9 November, 2016

Dragons spout water instead of fire at two different Temples in Kyoto.  Of course, these fountains are for washing hands, not refreshment.

Water fountain dragon Kyoto 2

Water fountain dragon Kyoto

Sicilian Key (an inventive title)

21 October, 2016

A key shop sign in Catania, Sicily:


Sicily, Italy (2016)


Readers may recall previously shared key shop signs:


Charley Harper’s Pigs

3 October, 2016

Readers may recall the Betty Crocker cookbook illustrated by Charley Harper, which was shared last week.

Either Betty Crocker has a disproportionate number of recipes involving pork, or Charley Harper chose to illustrate pork recipe more frequently than others, because the cookbook contains an impressive array of pig drawing.

The Author is particularly amused by the clever (if somewhat morbid) illustrations of the pig train (accompanied by a recipe involving sausage links), the butchers with the pig puzzle and the perfectly shaped pigs in the pot and skillet.