True detective stories: The Secret Service (1908)

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True detective stories

No. 1 – The Barney letters

by A L Drummond, Formerly Chief of the U S Secret Service

This is the first of a series of true detective stories which will be printed in The Sunday Call. The author is Mr Andrew Lewis Drummond, formerly Chief of the United States Secret Service.

Mr Drummond has lived more good detective stories than the best writer of such fiction. For twenty-five years, he was employed by the national government. Most of this time he held a roving commission. Smugglers, counterfeiters, members of the Ku-Klux-Klan, swindlers, robbers and murderers pitted their cunning against his cleverness. Sometimes the chase was exciting and bordered on hair-trigger escapades; in other cases it was quiet and calm – a matter of brains.

In the thirty-seven years that he has been a detective, he has handled, he says, probably two thousand cases. Mr Drummond will relate the best to readers of The Sunday Call.

Remember, these stories are true. They will show exactly how a detective works, and how some now historical cases have been run to earth.

On April 10, 1873, I was summoned to Washington by E C Banfield, solicitor of the treasury.

“Drummond,” said he, when I presented myself at his office, “I called you here from New York to put you on a big swindling case. Somebody who pretends to be a preacher is using President Grant’s name in an effort to swindle postmasters and other employees of the government. His ostensible purpose is to raise money with which to reimburse Jay Cooke & Co. for funds advanced to pay General Grant’s campaign expenses against Greeley.

He is sending circulars broadcast. Sent one to a postmaster named Grant in North Carolina, who happened to be a cousin of the president. The North Carolina Grant said he knew Ulysses would never sanction anything like that, so he sent the circular straight to the president. You know, the president as a rule does not talk much, but he talked about this. He says the swindlers must be caught. That’s what I want you to do, catch them. They are a bold lot – just read this circular that they are sending to postmasters.”

And Mr Banfield handed me a folded sheet of paper bearing two communications, the first of which read:

Confidential Circular No. 14 Executive Mansion, Washington, April 5, 1873

The annexed conversations are submitted to the friends of the president in confidence. Our friends can address the Rev. J Hale Barney, who is temporarily secretary in that behalf. Any one having conscientious convictions against contributing need only silently decline. The president has aided in good faith, and confidently relies upon our active and cheerful assistance. Suppose nothing had been done and the state of affairs existing in Louisiana had now extensively prevailed – what would be the result?

Read carefully the president’s views and act as your judgment dictates, remembering that this subject is confidential and known only to three persons besides the president, and that whatever is sent should be in currency in the enclosed envelope.

Very respectfully, O E Babcock, Secretary to the President

Mr Babcock’s well known signature, let me add, was written with a quill pen which, as everybody knew, it was his invariable custom to use, and might readily have deceived any one who was not familiar with his writing. The second communication on the circular was as follows:

Executive Mansion, Washington, Oct. 12, 1872

(Memoranda of a conversation between the president and his secretary)

Secretary – I wish to recall to you the following telegram that Senator Morton sent to you:

“A conspiracy has been formed to overrun southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and to keep the colored vote from the polls in the southern states. Several thousand nonresidents have just voted in Indiana. Men and money are needed. I send a man to you who has been in their councils. – O P Morton”

The President: Yes, I have thought the matter all over, and had a long talk with the man the senator sent. What does Mr Cooke say about money? You know that we have none and that the committee’s means are all necessary for the regular business.

Secretary: Mr Cooke will furnish you any amount you require.

The President: Very well. I will take the responsibility. Have Captain C. select a dozen men to go south and west with the funds and organize. The mere fact of a good organization will deter lawless bodies from attempting to defraud the people at the polls.

Additional conversation March 24, 1873

Secretary: Mr President, have you determined how you will reimburse Mr Cooke the money furnished last October?

The president: Yes, I have. The bishop has suggested the Rev. J Hale Barney to act as secretary in that matter. Appoint him immediately, and as our mails are so large and go to clerks to be arranged and briefed before we see them, you will have all letters on the subject addressed to him. Call upon our friends and allow no one to contribute more than $10, and, to prevent publicity and trouble, direct the remittance to be made by a single $10 note. Registered letters, drafts or express would necessarily lead to publicity. Mr Secretary, you will make an alphabetical list of every contributor, to which we can hereafter refer.

“Have you any idea who these fellows are?” I queried, as I folded up the circular.

“Not the slightest,” replied Mr Banfield. “All I know is that the circulars are accompanied by a return envelope, bearing the printed address, ‘Rev. J Hale Barney, Executive Secretary, etc., 426 Sixth Street Northwest, Washington, DC.”

Tracking Barney

The first thing I did was to go to the address where the Rev. Mr Barney was supposed to live and rent a room. I found the house to be a three story structure of respectable appearance. The landlady, a bright, intelligent woman, had two very pretty grown daughters. She asked me all about myself, why I was in Washington and whom I could give as a reference. I told her I was in the capital to take the civil service examination for a position in the treasury department. I have her as a reference the postmaster, a brother, by the way, of Senator Edmunds. Upon these representations she rented me the front room on the second floor.

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Then I went to the post office. I revealed to the postmaster the nature of my business, and asked him to summon the carriers who delivered mail to the address given by Barney. He readily complied, and two carriers appeared, the name of one of whom, I remember, was Hyatt. I asked each of the carriers what he knew, if anything, about Barney. Neither of them had ever seen him. Each had delivered a good deal of mail at his address, but he was always out when they came.

I also learned that there was considerable mail for Barney to go out on the next delivery. Examination showed that every envelope was one furnished by Barney for the forwarding of remittances. I carefully put a secret mark on each piece of mail, and then said to Hyatt:

“When you deliver these letters this afternoon, I shall, if possible, be in conversation with the landlady on the front porch. I want you to interrupt me and ask about Barney. Ask if he is in, and, if not, try to find out something about him.”

When the carrier came the landlady and I were talking on the front porch. An inquiry about Barney brought the reply that he was not in.

“When did you last see him?” asked the carrier.

“I never saw him,” was the answer.

We both expressed our surprise, whereat she volunteered to tell the full story of her experience with her clerical roomer.

She said that her first knowledge of him came in a letter from Baltimore. In this letter, he told her that, while he was engaged in the ministry, he had no permanent charge, inasmuch as his duties required that he should constantly travel. Every week or two, however, he passed through Washington, and for that reason he wished to engage a room, where his mail, of which he received much, could be sent.

He explained that he was familiar with the plan of her house, since, with Indian Agent Ross, he had visited Senator Clayton during the time when the Arkansas statesman occupied the parlor and the sitting room that adjoined it on the back; and if the senator’s former quarters had not been rented since he gave them up, the writer hoped that he might be able to engage the parlor – he would not need the sitting room. In fact, his only use for the parlor would be to serve as a safe place for a little trunk, in which he wished his mail to be kept pending his periodical visits. The family, he explained, might continue to use the room as if it were their own, provided only that they would take care to slip through a slot in the cover of the trunk whatever mail might be delivered for him.

The landlady in her reply told the preacher that while she would be glad to rent the room to him she could not afford to accept less than the regular rental of $75, which she feared he would not be willing to give, since it was not his intention to make much use of the premises. But he quickly came back with a letter enclosing a check for the first month’s rent and asking that a key be sent him, so that if he should visit the capital at night with only an hour between trains he could go to his room and get his mail without disturbing the family. The key was sent.

A little later in the afternoon, I took advantage of an opportunity to slip into the parlor without being seen and lift Barney’s trunk. It was light. There were a few letters in it, but not so many as I had expected there would be from the reports of the large amount of mail for him that had been delivered at the house.

The next day, I lifted Barney’s trunk again and shook it around. It was only 15 inches long, and perhaps 10 inches wide and deep — but there was nothing in it.

With this discovery, I sent for two more detectives to stand in the street in front of the house at night and see if any one arrived or departed after the rest of the folks had gone to bed. I also took up a position in my room where I could see, and stayed there from 8 o’clock at night until 7 o’clock the next morning. But not a soul entered or left the house after 10 o’clock at night.

Mailing marked money

Then I went to the government printing office and had some envelopes printed exactly like the envelopes addressed to Barney that he sent to postmasters in which to return their contributions. I put some marked money in one of these envelopes and mailed it from Alexandria. I saw this letter when it came through the Washington post office, and saw it delivered. But the next day when I lifted the trunk, again there was nothing in it.

The detectives outside kept up the night watch on the house, and I continued to mail marked money to Barney, but no one was ever seen to enter or to leave the premises at night, though the letters containing the bills invariably disappeared. So I began to look up the other roomers in the house.

There were only three. One was a government clerk, a young man. Another was B S Pardee, a colonel in the army. The other was A S Sutton, also a colonel in the army.

Pardee was a tall, broad-shouldered blond, with a Van Dyke beard. He came from a good family in Connecticut and had the manners and bearing of a gentleman. Apparently he was about 40 years old.

Colonel Sutton looked more like a southern army officer than a northerner. He had a black imperial, a fierce mustache, and wore a black slouch hat. He was three or four years older than Pardee.

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Pardee occupied the room immediately in back of Barney’s parlor, folding doors that were closed leading to it. Sutton’s room was at the rear of the third floor.

The government clerk seemed to be all right, so far as I could discover, nor did there appear to be anything about the acts of Pardee or Sutton to cause suspicion. So I resumed the mailing of marked money to Barney and also went down on Pennsylvania Avenue and bought a double handful of assorted trunk keys.

The first key I tried unlocked the trunk. There was a letter in it containing marked money that I had sent him, and also a letter I presume he mailed to himself. That was at night.

As dusk came on, the other detectives again took their stations outside and I sat down in the dark window of my room. All night long we kept up the vigil, but no one entered or left the house.

About 7 o’clock in the morning, Pardee went out. As soon as he was out of sight, I crept down to Barney’s room and unlocked the trunk. The two letters that were in it the night before were still there.

Half an hour later, Pardee returned. In a little while I heard the folding doors that separated his room from Barney’s softly sliding. And I heard, or I thought I heard, and I guess I did, the trunk lock click as a key was turned in it. Then I heard the sliding doors close again.

In a few minutes I heard Sutton tiptoeing down from his third story room. I opened the door softly as soon as he had nearly descended to the bottom of the stairs leading from the first floor and saw him enter Pardee’s room. In two or three minutes Sutton returned to his own room, and Pardee went out.

I let him get half a block down the street and then started after him. I signaled to the detectives outside that I was going to arrest him and for them to follow a little way behind me, but not to make themselves known unless it should be necessary to do so.

This done, I overtook Colonel Pardee, laid my hand on his shoulder and told him he was under arrest.

He asked what for, and I told him for swindling. He retained his composure throughout, asking only that he be permitted before being taken to the police station to return to his room for a moment. This request I refused. I locked him up and he was held for trial on $25,000 bail.

Then I returned to the rooming house and went directly to Sutton’s room. Enterning without knocking, I found him kneeling before an open grate, in which there was no fire, and applying matches to envelopes addressed to Barney in which remittances had been received. He was burning each envelope slowly and separately, in order not to make too much smoke, and several were on the floor in front of him unburned. I immediately placed him under arrest, and found on him, as I had on Pardee, marked money. He was trundled off to jail and held in the same bail that Pardee had been held — $25,000.

Any accomplices?

During the next few days, I frequently visited the prisoners in an attempt to find out if they had accomplices. Sutton would not talk at all, and Pardee was inclined to be taciturn. The most I could get out of him was that he was not alone in the swindle.

“If you will inquire at the White House,” he said,” I think you will find others concerned in this matter.”

This remark was presumably an effort to implicate the president’s secretary, Mr Babcock, whose name had been forged to the circulars. I convinced him there was no use of trying to besmirch Babcock, and finally he said:

“Ask Lackey what he knows about it.”

I knew of no such person and asked where he could be found.

“If you will inquire about him at the White House,” replied Pardee, “I think you can get track of him.”

I did inquire, and found there was such a man there, a clerk. Lackey was brought before the district attorney and questioned, but had no difficulty in establishing his innocence.

Pardee remained in jail a few months, succeeded in having his bail reduced to $5,000, gave it, and died in an insane asylum in Connecticut before he could be brought to trial. Sutton also furnished bail after it had been reduced to $5,000, and the next I heard of him I read that he had shot a man in Washington. What eventually became of him I do not know, except that he was never tried for his participation in the Barney swindle.

That these two army officers ever should have descended to such means of gaining money is one of the marvels that frequently confront those whose business it is to ferret out criminals. Both were men of intelligence and education; both came from good families, and while they perhaps obtained a few thousand dollars by using the name of the president of the United States in a swindling scheme, it was pitifully poor compensation for the wrecking of their lives.

Pardee, in particular, had — up to the time of his crime — what appeared to be more than an ordinarily bright future. He had been the secretary of Indian Agent Ross, whose headquarters were at Port Townsend, Washington, and Sutton had also been connected with the same office.

Yet perhaps the strangest feature of the whole matter is that so many postmasters were deceived by what should have appeared at first glance to be a clumsy fraud. Grant’s North Carolina cousin was the only of of the thousands to whom the circulars were sent who had enough cleverness or enough courage to lay the matter before the authorities and declare, “I know Ulysses would never sanction anything like that.”

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