Master Detective: The life and crimes of Ellis Parker, America’s real-life Sherlock Holmes

 

Chapter 1

A Crime in the Next County

1932

 

Cold gusty rain swept the rolling countryside near Hopewell, New Jersey, blowing dead leaves across bleak farm fields covered with stubble. Trees still bare from winter stood black and lonely against the low clouds in the night sky while gray stone walls marking property boundaries glistened darkly in the rain.

On a gentle rise at the end of a long curving driveway, a large whitewashed stone house stood alone, appearing gray in the darkness. Patches of light glowed warmly from several windows on the first floor. The second floor windows were dark. On one of those windows, a loose shutter rattled slightly in the wind.

Inside, the nursemaid put the baby to bed upstairs and pinned his blanket in place. She opened the widow a crack and placed a screen in front of the crib to deflect drafts. The baby went to sleep quickly.

The rain died away, but the cold wind still rose and fell, muffling the sound of soft footsteps as a shadow moved through the dark woods towards the house.

Around 9:00pm, someone downstairs heard a sharp cracking noise like wood breaking somewhere outside, but thought nothing of it.  Finally, about 10:00pm, as everyone began preparing for bed, the nursemaid went in to check on the baby.

She didn’t want to disturb him, so she only turned on the light in the adjoining bathroom. As she did, she noticed the room felt colder than she remembered, so she closed the window and turned on the electric heater in the fireplace. As she stood warming her hands in the dimly lit room, she was suddenly aware that she could not hear the baby breathing. Thinking the covers might have gotten over the baby’s head, she walked over to the other side of the room, pushed the screen aside, and looked in the crib.

 

A few miles away, at the New Jersey State Police barracks at Wiburtha, in West Trenton, Trooper Bornmann pulled off his raincoat as he walked in out of the windy night. He greeted the duty officer, Lieutenant Dunn, commenting on the weather and the traffic accident he had investigated. The phone rang and Dunn answered.

“New Jersey State Police. Lieutenant Dunn speaking. Yes…. yes….”

Dunn frowned, picked up a pencil and began writing. “What time?..Yes.”

He hung up the phone and sat with a bewildered look on his face.

“Who was that?” asked Bornmann, picking up a cup of coffee.

Dunn still looked confused, staring at the phone.

“Some guy who said he was Charles Lindbergh.”

Bornmann’s eyes widened. Everyone knew of the famous and reclusive Charles Lindbergh and his newly built estate just outside of nearby Hopewell.

“Lindbergh? No kidding? Well, what did he want?”

Dunn turned towards Bornmann.

“He said his baby’s been kidnapped.”

 

Hopewell Chief of Police Harry Wolfe and Constable Charles Williamson were the first investigators to arrive at the Lindbergh estate outside of town, pulling up at 10:40. They found Lindbergh and butler Oliver Whately searching the grounds. In the faint light, Lindbergh looked calm, businesslike, and in control, just as he always did in the newspapers. He led Wolfe and Williamson to the baby’s second floor room where they found some small clumps of mud on a leather suitcase by the window. On the wide windowsill was a plain, unmarked envelope that the Lindberghs, in an effort to preserve any possible fingerprints, had not opened.

Outside they found footprints below the window and two rectangular indentations in the soft ground.  Further away from the house they found a 3/4-inch chisel on the ground and still further away, a homemade ladder. The ladder had been made in three collapsible sections that nested together, apparently for easy transport. Only two sections had been used. The rungs on the ladder were unusually far apart, apparently to make the ladder lighter and more portable.  Wooden dowels through the overlapping side rails had connected the two ladder sections, but the dowel holes had created a weak point. The lower part of the two upper side rails had split, the possible source of the cracking noise Lindbergh heard.

By 11:00, checkpoints were set up in New Jersey and along the approaches to New York City. Corporal Joseph Wolf was the first of the state police to arrive and two more troopers arrived a few minutes later. One set up a checkpoint at the end of the long driveway to preserve any possible tire tracks, and the other stood watch over the area beneath the nursery window. By 11:15 over a dozen state police were on the scene, including their founder and superintendent, Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Like many others, Schwarzkopf was a great admirer of Lindbergh and regarded him with awe. He introduced himself to his hero and asked if he had any idea who could have done this. Lindbergh did not. Crime scene investigator Corporal Frank Kelly examined the envelope, but found no prints. Inside, on a single sheet of paper, was a message written in blue ink in an unsteady hand:

 

Dear Sir!

Have 50000$ redy with 2500$ in 20$ bills 1500$ in 10$ bills and 1000$ in 5$ bills. After 2-4 days we will inform you were to deliver the Mony. We warn you for making anyding public or for notify the polise the child is in gute care. Indication for all letters are singnature  and 3 holes.”

 

The last line referred to the curious way the writer of the note had signed it: a solid red circle in the center of two interlocking blue circles and pierced by three small holes. Schwarzkopf decided to keep the message confidential to make it easier to authenticate future notes.

Outside in the freezing darkness, reporters from the New York Times, the New York Daily News and other papers began to arrive, clamoring for details and lending the scene an air of hysteria and anxious confusion. The usually publicity-shy Lindbergh invited the reporters, now over 20 strong, into the three-car garage where butler Oliver Whately served coffee. Because there was still so little to see in the darkness, most of the reporters soon departed to get their stories in before their morning deadlines. Those remaining at the house waited anxiously for word from the roadblocks.

By sunrise, the story was all over the nation, and hundreds of the curious public descended on the estate. Narrow local roads were soon jammed and visitors began to appear on foot, trudging through the woods from all directions, leaving trails of muddy footprints and trash in their wake.

About 30 police and other investigators were in the Lindbergh house by now, but Schwarzkopf knew more manpower would be needed, so various police were assigned to contact detectives around the state and enlist their help. Trooper William Horn left the Lindbergh house around 11:00 AM and headed to Mt. Holly to seek out Burlington County’s chief detective.

By late in the day, the area was under control and police had set up a command post in the garage. The next morning, extra phone lines were laid along the Hopewell-Princeton Road. The police questioned local people and Lindbergh called upon a local tracker and hunter named Oscar Bush to follow the trail from beneath the window. Bush concluded that the footprints were from two different men who had been wearing covers over their shoes. He also found what appeared to be the tire tracks of two cars in the mud by the private dirt road that connected with the driveway.

To accommodate all the people assigned to the house, the police covered most of the first floor living room with mattresses. Meals were prepared and served almost continuously. The state police shared the command post/garage with the various reporters who surged in and out, and the library was used for conferences.

In addition to investigating, manning the 20 phone lines and providing security, several state police were assigned to review incoming mail. In the days to come, hundreds of letters would pour in from well-wishers, amateur detectives, psychics, and just plain kooks. People from all over the country wrote to relay their prophetic dreams, personal theories, astrology readings, or séances. The New York Times estimated more than 100,000 people coast to coast were involved in the search. The Commissioner of Public Safety in Pittsburgh announced he would send his entire force to visit every home in the city searching for the baby, even though there was no evidence the baby should actually be in Pittsburgh. The important thing was to do something, preferably something public.

Across the nation, everyone was talking about the case and everyone had an opinion. The most popular theory was that the kidnapping was the work of organized crime. The snatch racket as it was called was becoming more popular with professional criminals. Some said Detroit’s Purple Gang was involved, or some New York crime boss, or the Touhey gang. There was even a rumor that Al Capone himself had arranged the kidnapping as a bargaining chip to get out of jail where he had recently been sent for tax evasion.

Lindbergh was convinced organized crime was to blame and wanted the investigation slanted in that direction. Schwarzkopf reluctantly went along, even though he didn’t agree. The snatch racket targeted wealthy men, not babies, and certainly not the children of national icons. Schwarzkopf reasoned that the clumsy, broken English of the ransom notes, coupled with the modest ransom demand of $50,000, and the ladder left behind indicated the work of someone who was not an experienced kidnapper, and not involved in organized crime. But Lindbergh continued to influence the investigation, because he was more than a victimized parent, he was an American icon.

Only five years before, Charles Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, had been the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. From the moment he landed the Spirit of St. Louis in Paris, Charles Augustus Lindbergh became the most famous and admired man in America, if not the world. Brave, handsome, modest, Lindbergh was the perfect American hero. “Lucky Lindy” was celebrated in story and song everywhere.

In spite of his fame and popularity, Lindbergh valued his privacy. He and Anne Morrow Lindbergh divided their time between Anne’s parents’ house at Next Day Hill, near New York City, and their own nearly completed house near Hopewell. The Hopewell house was still under construction, so the Lindberghs spent only their weekends there. The kidnappers’ timing had been suspiciously precise.

The investigators continued to mobilize and expand. On March 5, four days after the kidnapping, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore held a conference in Trenton of  “all available municipal, federal, and private police forces throughout the country” to coordinate the efforts of all the many entities working on the case. One police commissioner, in an unfortunate choice of words said the conference would create “the greatest and smoothest working crime machine ever assembled.” J. Edgar Hoover attended for the federal government, as well as police commissioners from around the country, local law enforcement people, and even private detectives representing the Burns Agency and the Pinkerton Agency. All told, there were 52 representatives from police departments as far away as St. Louis.

While the police met in Trenton, a second ransom note arrived at the Lindbergh estate. This note, written in the same hand and with the same fractured English-German word order and spelling, complained of the publicity and raised the ransom demand to $70,000. More ominously, it said that the kidnappers would have to keep the baby for a longer time than they had expected. The note gave no instructions for transfer of the money and no hint as to what Lindbergh should do next.

The noise and confusion surrounding the investigation continued. A bootlegger and con man named Mickey Rosner convinced Lindbergh’s lawyer, Henry Breckenridge to make him and two of his “associates” intermediaries to deal with the kidnappers. The “associates”, two mobsters named Salvatore Spitale and Irving Bitz promptly moved into the Lindbergh home and freeloaded without contributing anything to the case except more aggravation. One of Rosner’s first actions was to circulate a copy of the ransom note Schwarzkopf wanted to keep secret. To add even further to the surreal atmosphere at the Lindbergh home, a private pilot began flying over the house every day taking people on sightseeing tours.

Amidst the constant din of publicity, false leads, hysterical speculation, second-guessing, interference, and intense public scrutiny, Schwarzkopf and his state police pushed ahead as best they could. The Lindbergh kidnapping had become the most discussed topic of the hour. All over the world, people followed each development with fascination, discussing and critiquing the performance of the state police. Suddenly, everyone was an amateur detective, like the heroes in the currently popular stories of Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine. The theories, speculation, rumors, and outright gossip continued to swirl around the case like a swarm of angry bees. But of all those who were following the case, none followed more intently and with more interest than a certain individual a few miles to the south, in Burlington County.

 

Compared to the frantic, confused, and frustrated atmosphere at the Lindbergh house, the old Quaker town of Mt. Holly, the county seat of Burlington County seemed quiet and leisurely. In the crisp, cold air of March, the old colonial courthouse stood placidly on High Street amid bare trees and lifeless flowerbeds. Pedestrians bundled up against the chill strolled up and down the street as a few automobiles passed by. In the red brick Elks Club next to the courthouse, men in the second floor bar read the newspapers, played cards, and speculated about the Lindbergh baby. In the center of town, just a block away, people in the stores and small businesses along High Street and Rancocas Road shook their heads and talked excitedly about the kidnapping. Everyone had his own ideas on the case, each one heavy on speculation and light on facts. In short, Mt. Holly was pretty much like most other towns in America, and its citizens were pretty much like everyone else … with one important exception.

In his small office on the second floor of the courthouse, Burlington County Chief of Detectives Ellis Howard Parker sat motionless behind a cluttered desk, slowly drawing on his pipe, occasionally refilling it from a can of Sir Walter Raleigh. He leaned back balancing on the rear legs of his chair, his back almost touching the radiator and the wall behind him, a fog of white smoke slowly rolled and spread through the room.  He was a short stocky man, bald except for a fringe of white and a small mustache. No one would have called Parker “dapper”. He was dressed in dark trousers, a mismatched vest, and an open neck white shirt that looked as if it had been worn during a wrestling match. Ellis Parker really didn’t look much like a detective, more like the owner of the local hardware store. But his appearance was deceiving, as many criminals had found out the hard way. Behind the rumpled facade was a shrewd and calculating mind, coupled with a folksy manner that put suspects at their ease, and often coaxed them into a confession.

His secretary, Anna Bading, knew better than to disturb him when he sat staring at that spot on the wall. The Chief was thinking, and it didn’t take a detective to figure out just what he was thinking about.

The Trenton Evening Times lay open on the desk in front of him. Like every other paper in the country, the front page was splashed with articles about the Lindbergh kidnapping.  Of course there were other stories in the paper that day; stories about Hitler and Mussolini threatening Europe and the Japanese overrunning China.

Closer to home, the worldwide depression still had the nation in its grip, and the jobless sold apples on street corners. The doomed experiment of Prohibition was in its 12th unhappy year, and New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just announced his candidacy for President in the fall election. Spawned by both Prohibition and the Depression, organized crime was prospering, and men such as Dutch Schultz and Al Capone were household words. But even with all the turmoil elsewhere, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby was the one story that fascinated everyone, including Ellis Parker.

The kidnapping occurred in Mercer County, next door to Burlington County, and out of Parker’s official jurisdiction. Five days had now passed since the crime. On the second day, State Trooper William Horn came by asking Parker to help out, but they expected him to work on routine tasks under the direction of the state police and Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf.  Parker sent Horn away empty-handed.

Parker felt insulted by the request. He wasn’t used to being just another detective because he wasn’t just another detective. Ellis Parker was considered by many to be the greatest detective in America, possibly the world. The newspapers called him the “County Detective with the World Wide Reputation”, and “The American Sherlock Holmes”. He and his detectives handled hundreds of cases a year and nearly every one of them ended in an arrest and conviction. Around the office were battered old filing cabinets containing files on hundreds of cases he had solved. Asking him to be just one of the crowd was like expecting a racehorse to pull a plow. No, if Ellis Parker joined in the hunt for the Lindbergh kidnapper, it would not be as a lowly helper; it would be on his own terms.

Crumpled up in Parker’s wastebasket was the newspaper report of Governor Moore’s police conference in Trenton the day before. The governor had sent out an open invitation to police forces all over the nation to attend a conference and compare notes on the case. Police and private detectives answered the call, but not Parker. He didn’t work as just a face in the crowd. He ran his investigations his own way, the way that got results.

Knowing his reputation, Parker’s many contacts in the press asked him to comment on the case, but he remained silent. On March 5, however, Parker decided it was time to make a statement. In an article the New York Times placed on the same page as the report of the governor’s conference, Parker told the press that the police were not any help in recovering the baby, and that things should be handled differently.

 

“If I were Colonel Lindbergh, I would clear out all the officers from his case and I would deal directly with the kidnappers. There is only one thing at issue in this case, and that is to get the baby back alive and restore it to its father and mother … it’s strictly a business proposition. The abductors are lying low awaiting immunity, and I believe they will delay any harm to the baby as long as possible.”

 

The most important thing, he continued, was getting the baby back safely, not capturing the kidnappers. If the kidnapper would return the baby, he would personally do everything in his power to see that the kidnapper was treated fairly and with mercy. Parker reasoned that, with the hornet’s nest they had stirred up, the kidnappers might be having second thoughts, and might welcome the chance to back out as gracefully as possible.

Later, Parker would claim he was concerned he ran the risk of being investigated for helping the kidnappers escape justice. After agonizing, he finally decided that the baby’s life was worth more than the punishment of the kidnapper, and went ahead.

The statement annoyed the official investigators.  They saw it as an attempt by Parker to insert himself into the investigation by making promises he could not possibly keep. However, Col A. J. McNabb, Jr., who had been military attaché to Anne Lindbergh’s father in Mexico noted the article and decided to bring it to the attention of Charles Lindbergh himself. On March 9 McNabb wrote to Parker to say he had conferred with Lindbergh and that Lindbergh agreed with Parker’s public statements. Even so, the state police remained at Hopewell.

 

Parker pushed back his chair and slowly stood up in the smoky gloom. He looked out the window to the park area behind the courthouse and spoke, partly to Anna Bading, and partly to himself.

“Too much time,” he muttered. “Too much damn time. Every hour that goes by and the trail gets a little colder; especially now that Colonel Schwarzkopf and his pals have made a hash of the crime scene. They let every flatfoot, reporter, family member, and curiosity seeker stomp around there before anyone with a proper eye looked at it. They could have found the footprints of the kidnapper and maybe seen how he got there, and where he went afterwards. They could have matched up the prints with suspects, but not with that ‘elephant’s parade’ they let through there. They were lucky they found the damn ladder.”

The pipe had gone out. Parker scratched a wooden match on the windowsill to relight it. Fresh clouds of smoke arose as Parker continued.

“And every hour that goes by, the trail gets colder and the pressure for an arrest gets higher. They’ll probably wind up arresting some poor Jasper who had nothing to do with it.  I was against New Jersey having a state police force when they started it back in ‘21. I said it would just gum up real law enforcement. The way they’re handling this case proves it.”

Anna nodded in sympathy. She knew Ellis Parker had a low opinion of other detectives, and especially of the New Jersey State Police and their chief, H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Parker took a special joy on those occasions when he solved a crime that had the state police stumped.

Parker turned from the window, sighed, and addressed Anna directly.

“I’m going to get a bite of lunch. I’ll be back in a half-hour or so.”

“Over to the Elks?”

It was a good guess. Parker spent a lot of time at the Elks Club, though for lunch he often went into town just a block away. He could sometimes catch a comment or a bit of casual information that would fit in with a case he was investigating. Ellis Parker believed that there was no such thing as useless information, because you never knew when all the pieces would suddenly come together.

 

With his pipe still in his mouth, he got his overcoat off the coat rack in the corner.

“Oh, I may look in at the Elks, but I think I’ll stroll into town and see what’s doing. I’ll eat at one of the places there, maybe the hotel.” He grabbed his battered hat from the top of the rack and headed for the stairs. His footsteps caused the old wooden courthouse floors to creak and echo.

As he had done for so many years, he crossed the lawn behind the courthouse and make his way in the direction of the Elks Club just a few steps away. From there, he would continue down High Street into the center of Mt. Holly, greeting strollers and shopkeepers as he walked. Everyone knew the Chief, and everyone respected him. He encouraged people to call him Ellis, even children. Ellis Parker liked to bask in the attention of his admiring public. When Parker was immersed in a difficult case he often forgot to shave, and local people in Mt Holly claimed they could tell when Ellis was involved in a really tough case just by observing the thickness of his stubble.

 

With the world attention the Lindbergh case was attracting, everyone was feeling the pressure, but the official investigation made little progress. None of the roadblocks set up after the kidnapping yielded any suspects, and no one seemed to have seen or heard anything useful. License numbers of stolen cars were published, but with no results. Babies resembling the victim were reported in automobiles in Buffalo, Washington, Port Chester, Philadelphia, Nashua, New Hampshire, and a score of other towns. Neighbors reported hearing babies crying in unexpected places, and phony ransom notes continued to arrive at Hopewell.

The police questioned the members of the Lindbergh household but learned little. The kidnappers’ knowledge of the location of the baby’s room and the habits of the Lindberghs seemed to indicate the possibility of an “inside job”, or at least some contact or leak within the house.  But police soon learned that butler Oliver Whately had sometimes given the public guided tours of the house in the Lindberghs’ absence. In fact, a number of the local people had dropped by to inspect the house while it was under construction. The maid, Violet Sharpe, was suspiciously nervous and evasive while interviewed, but this too led nowhere. In spite of all the intense investigation, there was still no suspect, and, most importantly, no baby.

A few days after the kidnapping, an obscure school principal and physical education teacher named John Condon took out an ad in a local Bronx newspaper offering a $1,000 reward for the return of the baby, and also offering his services as an intermediary. Condon had no connection with either the Lindberghs or the police, and there was no rational reason why his ad should have even been noticed, let alone taken seriously. (The Bronx Home News had a circulation of only 150,000.) Nevertheless, Condon received a letter from the kidnappers the very next day accepting him as an intermediary. Since the letter had been signed in the same distinctive way as the ransom notes, Lindbergh accepted Condon as intermediary. To avoid publicity when communicating with the kidnappers through ads in the newspapers, Condon was to be known as “Jafsie”, a name derived from his initials, J.F.C.

So while the Lindbergh investigation went on with no results, America’s greatest detective, just a few miles away, impatiently awaited his chance.

 

When Parker returned to his office after lunch, he received a phone call. The raspy voice on the other end sounded strained, distorted, and sinister, like someone disguising his real voice, but Parker could tell it was a man, probably middle aged, and with no accent.

“Did you mean what you said in that newspaper article?” the voice asked.

“Yes, I did,” Parker replied. “If I had the money I’d pay it myself.”

“Well, I trust you will interest yourself in the case without publicity, and I am sure you will have success.”

The phone went dead.

Parker made a note of the time and substance of the call and returned to his other cases.

Soon, however, his mind came back to the Lindbergh case. What if the man on the phone was the kidnapper? Was it possible to get him to return the baby unharmed? Parker cursed to himself in frustration. If only he could get an official crack at the investigation. It would be the biggest case of his career. Solving the Lindbergh case would be his greatest challenge, the crown jewel of his remarkable 40-year career. Out the window he could see the old jail, with cells that had held so many of the people Parker had caught over the years. There was even a place where gallows once stood and where several of his more serious arrests had been hanged. In Burlington County, Parker was master of all he surveyed, but once across the county line, he had no official authority.

His eye fell on the newspaper on his desk once again and he shook his head in disbelief and frustration. Here, just a few miles away, was the greatest crime of the decade, maybe of the century, and he was being left out of it. Time was passing and the trail was growing cold, but without any access to the evidence he might as well be just a curious bystander with his nose up against the glass. Even if he somehow single-handedly found the kidnappers, he couldn’t even arrest them unless they were in his county! If only he could be given the information and resources the state police had.

Now Parker was staring at the spot on the wall again, but this time he was not working out the trail of a criminal. He was reviewing his career; his mind drifting back over the years to all the cases he had cracked; all the criminals he had captured, and all the jaws that had dropped in disbelief when he had done it. His was a long, distinguished and remarkable career, and the one case that would top it off was out there in front of him, hovering in plain sight, but just out of his reach. To Ellis Parker, it almost seemed as if everything in his life had been leading him to this moment, to this one case … to his destiny.

Chapter 2

A Fiddler Becomes a Detective

1871-1900

Ellis Parker did not set out to become a detective, or even a policeman. His entire career was almost accidental, the vocational equivalent of being struck by lightning.

Born near Wrightstown, New Jersey on September 12, 1871, on the site of what would later become Fort Dix, Ellis was a Quaker and attended the first Day School at Upper Springfield.

Ellis Parker was born into a rapidly changing America. When he was five years old, the country celebrated its Centennial with a fabulous exposition in Philadelphia that featured such exciting new inventions as the typewriter, linoleum, and the telephone. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad seven years earlier connected the two coasts and unified the country. Ulysses S. Grant was president and another ex-Civil War General named George Armstrong Custer was chasing the Sioux and Cheyenne in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. In June, Custer caught up with them in a battle the Indians called the Greasy Grass, but history would call the Little Bighorn.

By the time he reached his teens in the mid-1880s, Ellis Parker was a skilled fiddler much in demand at barn dances. Ellis and his two friends Joe Raymond on the harp and Jake Walker on the banjo comprised the rather grandly named Brindletown Orchestra.

Parker traveled around the county to the dances in his father’s horse and wagon. He didn’t go to college; relatively few did in those days. The only hint of a future law enforcement career for Ellis was his insistence on posting each barn dance with signs prohibiting fighting within 100 feet of the event. With his outgoing disposition, he might have drifted towards politics, but everything changed one fateful night.

Parker fiddled at a barn dance and when it was over put his fiddle in its case and placed it in the wagon for the trip back home. Parker then made his way through the milling crowd to find the organizer of the dance and collect his fee;  five dollars for the night’s work. When he returned his horse and cart were gone.

For a moment Parker stood in silence, torn between disbelief and outrage. Losing his fiddle was bad enough, but losing his father’s horse and cart was worse. Although he didn’t know it, Ellis Parker was at the crossroads of his future. He could simply rage and curse his bad luck as many people would have done, or he could do something about it. He frowned, stuck out his jaw, and decided he would get the horse and wagon back. In that one decision, Parker set the course for the rest of his life.

Exactly how he found who had stolen the horse and wagon is not certain; maybe he systematically questioned people and scoured neighboring farms or maybe he found clues and traced them. However he did it, he was able to locate the farm where the horse and wagon had been taken. Burlington County was too scarcely populated and too crime-free to justify the expense of a full time sheriff, so Parker contacted the Monmouth, Ocean, and Burlington County Detecting and Pursuing Association, a private, vigilante type group formed during the Civil War to foil horse thieves. Parker found a local member of the association and went with him to the home of the suspect. In the barn was Parker’s horse and wagon, with the fiddle still in the back. The man from the Association was impressed with the detective work. Not bad for a country fiddler, he thought, not bad at all. Someone like that could come in handy. He offered Ellis a part time job with the Association on the spot.

Thus Ellis Parker, the young country fiddler, started helping the Monmouth, Ocean, and Burlington County Detecting and Pursuing Association, and soon, in 1891, he was hired full time. Ellis Parker’s career as a detective had begun. That same year, the J.B. Lippincott Company of New York published A Study in Scarlet, the first American appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

 

In 1890s America, policing varied considerably from place to place. In the west, law enforcement was in the hands of local sheriffs, local citizen’s committees, and, occasionally, the local lynch mob. Six gun justice was the norm, and that justice was often swift and final. To supplement the often-spotty law enforcement protection of their commercial interests, private companies such as Wells Fargo had vigorous police forces of their own. Other private forces such as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency were running down outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In the eastern cities, more organized uniformed police forces were the norm, and were expected to control the fast growing slums filled with immigrants. In 1890, one fourth of the population of Philadelphia was foreign born. But local police forces sometimes proved a fertile ground for corruption. In 1892, just as Ellis Parker was beginning his career a few miles to the south, a New York cleric went on a crusade to turn up corruption in the city. He found the police were extorting protection money from gambling parlors, bawdy houses, after hours saloons, and businesses of all types. Some police were even selling “licenses” for certain types of crime. As a result, every top police official in the city was forced to resign, including the superintendent. There was even talk of calling in the militia to police the city.

In contrast to some of the excesses of law enforcement elsewhere, the local Pursuing Associations in New Jersey were reasonably low key. There was not enough crime to generate any serious danger of corruption, and the very existence of the vigilante-type organization did much to keep the level of law breaking relatively low. Local people committed much of the local crime, so the association usually did more pursuing than detecting. Still, some crime proved more difficult to solve, so the Association needed someone with good detective abilities. Ellis Parker turned out to be just the man they were looking for.

 

Ellis Parker around 1910

(Photo courtesy of William Fullerton)

 

From traveling around playing at barn dances, Parker already knew Burlington County and many of its inhabitants well. As a result he could often track down a culprit by questioning people and comparing the answers. It was a technique that was to serve him well in later years. He also developed his remarkable deductive ability, reading hoof prints, scratches, broken twigs, and even trash for the secrets they contained.

In addition to his detective talents, Parker developed an instinct for publicity and self-promotion. He was soon on good terms with the local press and always made sure they were kept up to date on his exploits. Before long, articles began appearing in local papers and Parker’s reputation grew. As a result, Parker caught the eye of Eckard P. Budd in the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.

Then as now, Burlington County stretched across New Jersey from the Delaware River just above Philadelphia and Camden, all the way to the ocean. Along the way the county crosses the Pine Barrens in the center, and the farms and beaches in the east. Local government centered on the county seat, the quiet Quaker town of Mt. Holly. The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office was charged with prosecuting wrongdoers, but the actual apprehension of these criminals was in the hands of local constables and the private detecting associations. These law enforcement people varied greatly in ability, motivation, and honesty. Even when they managed to apprehend a suspect, they frequently did it in such a clumsy way as to leave the prosecutor without sufficient evidence for a conviction.

Although a casual and creaky system, it was tolerable for a sleepy rural area. But as the twentieth century approached, Burlington County was growing, both in population and in crime. Things were changing in New Jersey as they were all over the eastern United States. The west had been mostly settled, and with the industrial revolution, factories and industry grew in the cities. The population was growing and becoming more urbanized as immigrants who earlier would have headed west now filled the cities instead. The cities were not prepared for the growth and the population pressure, so people crowded into teeming and dangerous slums. In such conditions, crime flourished, and even spilled into the rural areas as criminals sought richer hunting grounds. The pursuing associations, structured for casual burglary and horse thieving couldn’t keep up, so the various New Jersey counties began looking for better ways of providing law enforcement.

To deal with this need in Burlington County, Eckard P. Budd, the Prosecutor of Common Pleas for the County Prosecutor’s Office decided the county needed its own law enforcement office headed by a full time county detective. By placing detection, apprehension, and prosecution under a single county office, he could centralize law enforcement. The county prosecutor would no longer have to wait for the Pursuing Association or town constables to apprehend criminals, and no longer have to face the prospect of losing cases due to sloppy police work that wouldn’t hold up in court. After all, the prosecutor took the blame when a conviction wasn’t obtained, even if it was really the result of bungling by a local constable.

Budd decided the detective had to be someone with a proven record of success apprehending criminals. For this high-profile job, a political hack or unemployed relative wouldn’t do. This detective would have to be someone who knew his business and would make the prosecutor’s office look good. Otherwise, Budd knew the whole arrangement would be a failure and he would get the blame.

As Budd surveyed the county for possible candidates, he remembered young Ellis Parker, and Parker’s success in detective work. Thanks to both his competence and his publicity, Parker was highly regarded for his ability to solve the most tangled cases. Budd decided that Parker was exactly what he was looking for. After all, a man with Pursuing Association experience would know the area and have a working knowledge of law enforcement. He could take over the job right away without a lengthy and uncertain training period. And best of all, the pursuing association people would put up less of a fuss if the new county detective was one of their own rather than an unknown outsider. In 1894, the year The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes was published, 23 year old Ellis Parker became the first Chief Detective of Burlington County, New Jersey.

Presented with this opportunity, Parker reported to Mt. Holly determined to make the most of it. Instead of a regular salary, he was paid on a fee basis for each crime he solved. If the criminal went free, the Chief Detective didn’t get paid. This was additional incentive to find and convict the guilty parties, not that Parker needed more incentive. The thrill of the hunt, coupled with the excitement of outwitting criminals was really all the incentive Ellis Parker ever required.

The Burlington County Detective’s Office was set up in Mt. Holly in the stately 18th century courthouse on High Street. Next to the courthouse stood the old jail, a massive, forbidding gray stone structure with its own gallows. The brick cells were small and damp and looked like something found in a medieval dungeon rather than in a pleasant town in New Jersey. An underground passageway connected the courthouse to the jail, reinforcing the impression.

The ominous presence of the prison did not dampen the overall pleasantness of the town. The tree-shaded streets were lined with large and comfortable Victorian, shingle, and stone houses with wide front porches shaded by oak trees. The automobile had not yet arrived, and horse-drawn carts, buggies, and carriages lent a romantic, if somewhat malodorous atmosphere to the place. The town centered on the courthouse, with stately homes located along High Street in both directions. Most people in town knew each other, and soon everyone knew young Ellis Parker. He was outgoing and friendly, even to people he arrested. Soon everyone was greeting him simply as “Ellis”. Still a bachelor, Parker didn’t live in Mt. Holly, but in nearby Columbus. Even in those early days, he had a few eccentric tendencies, such as keeping a pet raccoon.

There are few complete records of cases handled by Parker in the years before 1901. Old hand-written ledgers in the prison show arrest and conviction records for these years, and Parker’s name shows up on many of them as arresting officer. The crimes became more varied than the horse thieving that was such a big part of the Burlington County scene a few years before. There was a sprinkling of assaults, burglaries, and various larcenies. The more sensational cases of Parker’s career were still to come.

One of Parker cases during this early period involved a career criminal and jail breaker who had eluded other detectives. Lorenzo Atkinson was born in Wrightstown, not far from Ellis himself, but there the resemblance ended. Atkinson was a sleepy looking little man with a sharp but expressionless face. His career predated Ellis Parker’s. He was first arrested in 1877 for robbing a furrier’s shop, and had been leading a life of crime ever since. When Parker was still fiddling at barn dances, Atkinson was locked up in the Mt. Holly jail and made his first escape. He eluded arrest for years while robbing stores from Mt. Holly to Freehold. Finally he was arrested again and imprisoned in Monmouth County.

One day the wife of one of his friends visited him. After the woman left and disappeared into the twilight, guards were amazed to discover she was still in Atkinson’s cell … alone. The woman and the prisoner had switched clothes, and the disguised Atkinson had escaped once again. Atkinson then moved his activities to Ocean County where he was again arrested and again escaped in 1892. He remained at large for several more years while unserved warrants piled up in three counties.

Ellis Parker was probably familiar with Atkinson from his time with the pursuing association, and saw him as a challenge. Through his growing network of contacts, Ellis Parker made inquiries and finally heard Atkinson was working in Tinton Falls, near Asbury Park. In 1899, using a bench warrant issued the year before for a grand larceny committed in 1892, Parker set out to capture the elusive Atkinson. By making some more inquiries in the area, Parker learned his quarry was using the assumed name of James Cummings. Soon, Parker located his man and snapped handcuffs on him. Atkinson claimed he was really James Cummings, but Parker was not fooled. Atkinson was placed in the Mt. Holly jail once again. This time, he did not escape.

In the Atkinson case, Ellis Parker relied mostly on his contacts and ability to follow a lead, but he continued to practice and hone other techniques during this time as well. Police work at this time, and for years afterwards mostly depended on informers, physical intimidation (the third degree), and the stupidity of the criminal. In an age when many police depended on the fear their authority enjoined to intimidate criminals, Parker was outwardly non-threatening. His appearance was usually rumpled, almost disheveled, and he often went without a tie, or even a coat. Once he had a suspect in custody, Parker used a variation on the “good cop-bad cop” technique. Parker played the good cop and cast the rest of the world as the bad cop. He was empathetic and helpful to suspects, engaging them in conversations that seemed harmless, but which established Parker as the suspect’s one best hope against the terrible trouble he was in. Soon the suspect, sensing the stern but sympathetic detective was his only friend in a hostile and vengeful world, was confiding in Parker. Parker would listen and agree to do all he could to help the suspect, but only if an honest confession were made. Parker was sincere in this promise, and often went to great lengths to see that a suspect got a fair trial and a reasonable sentence. Other detectives made people confess. Ellis Parker made people want to confess. After a while, Parker’s reputation became one of his greatest assets. Suspects caught by Ellis Parker felt it was hopeless to deny their guilt. Their best chance was to confess and hope to get Parker on their side.

Coupled with this down-home bedside manner was Parker’s deductive ability. He was interested in every detail of a case, and asked numerous questions that other people sometimes thought were pointless. When Parker finally put all the pieces together, however, the result was usually an apprehension and a conviction.

Although he gave the impression of being old fashioned, Ellis Parker was always looking for more effective ways of doing things. One of his earliest innovations was probably inspired by his experience with the Pursuing Association. He set up an ingenious system of quickly notifying farmers when a horse theft had been reported so they could help head off the culprit before he got too far. In 1898, he began a program of photographing those he arrested, and started a Rogue’s Gallery in the County Jail to aid with prisoner identification. He was not the first detective to use this technique (Wells Fargo agents had used it for several years) but he was certainly among the first. Thanks to Parker, law enforcement in Burlington County had come a long way in just a few short years.

 

Although the records don’t show any really sensational cases during this period, something happened to Ellis Parker that had as profound an effect on the course of his life as when his horse and cart were stolen. As the century neared its end, the dashing young bachelor detective met a young lady named Cora Giberson. Cora was quiet and reserved, almost the opposite of the outgoing Ellis, but she was steadying, sympathetic, and loyal. Around the turn of the century, these were the ideal qualities for a prospective wife. On February 10, 1900, Ellis Parker and Cora Giberson were married, and started on a road that did not end until 40 years and 15 children later.

Cora was the homemaker and the helpmate, but never interfered, or even discussed “business” matters. She was a retiring and somewhat nervous woman, very much focused on her home, her children, and domestic matters.

In later years, Ellis often said his success was due to a “good wife and a contented mind”, and there is no doubt that Cora Giberson became the most important source of long term stability and support of his life.

The horse was still king of local transportation. Ellis Parker himself used a horse and buggy on his investigations. The big musical craze was ragtime, as played by Scott Joplin. A young magician named Eric Weiss was becoming the sensation of vaudeville as the Handcuff King because of his ability to escape from locks. He was better known by his stage name; the Great Houdini. In Kansas, Carrie Nation began a crusade to fight the evils of alcohol and encourage temperance. She advanced this cause by joining with several dozen like-minded ladies and invading saloons armed with axes. Although she succeeded mostly in smashing private property, she planted the seeds of Prohibition, which was to become a big part of Ellis Parker’s life 20 years later.

New Jersey was still mostly a farming state, although industries were growing in the more urban areas. In the state capitol at Trenton, horse-drawn carriages and wagons clopped down dirt or cobblestone streets that smelled of manure in the summer and coal fires in the winter. In the middle of the state were the mysterious Pine Barrens, a wild wooded area that gave rise to rumors of monsters and strange happenings.

During the sweltering New Jersey summers, those who could escaped to the Atlantic beaches. Families of well to do men often spent the entire summer there and took their servants with them to places like Asbury Park, Margate, the Wildwoods, Cape May, Sea Isle City, and Avalon. But for the really well off, only Atlantic City would do. There the rich could be pushed along the boardwalk in wheeled wicker sedan chairs with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and genteel hotels such as the Dennis, the Brighton, the Garden, the Rudolf, and Craig Hall on the other.

Like the new century, Ellis Parker’s star was rising, and his years of dazzling success were only beginning. New cases lay ahead; difficult and dangerous cases. Soon Ellis Parker’s abilities would be tested as they had never been before. The seemingly simple county lawman was now on his way to becoming one of the shrewdest and most successful detectives in American history.

 

Chapter 3

Bloody Murder and Burning Barns

1901-1919

Snow pelted the town of Mt. Holly one winter’s night in 1901, sending residents scurrying for shelter. Ellis Parker was relaxing at his new home, the large three story Victorian house at 215 High Street he and Cora bought shortly after their marriage the year before. The house was across from the jail and only a block from the courthouse and the Elks Club. When he wasn’t in his office, hunting ducks with the Egg Island Gun Club or pursuing a case, Ellis Parker could usually be found at the Elks Club, but on this particular night, Ellis was in his parlor.

About 9:00, there was a knock on the front door and a neighbor came in to warm up on his way home. People often dropped by at all hours, and Ellis liked both the company and the occasional bit of useful information such visitors provided. The neighbor had come from New York City, and he remarked that the weather up there was unseasonably warm, almost spring like.

After the neighbor left, Parker went to bed but there would be no rest this night. Several hours later, two of his detectives, Dean and another man, pulled up in a sleigh and banged on the door with the news that there had been a murder in Riverdale. A local farmer named Washington Hunter had been bludgeoned and stabbed to death, and the house robbed of several thousand dollars. Hunter’s wife had seen the murderer leave. Parker, of course, knew the 70 year old Hunter, just as he knew most of the local residents.

When they arrived at the Hunters’ house after a drive through the snowy night, Parker carefully examined all the footprints in the snow. Although there had been a lot of trampling by neighbors and the police, Parker spotted one set of prints heading south into the woods. He set out with Dean to see where they led.

“The assailants split up when they left the house,” Parker remarked. “This fellow went off on his own and was running hard. You can tell by the deep toe prints. What’s more, he isn’t familiar with the area. The trail wanders and doubles back all over the place. This fellow was feeling his way.”

The trail of footprints ended at railroad tracks by a junction. A watchman reported seeing a coatless and hatless man about the time in question. A train bound for Camden had come through about the same time.

“Well, that settles where he went,” said Parker. “Now let’s look in the house.”

The body of Washington Hunter lay crumpled face down on the floor, stabbed numerous times on the right side and beaten with an iron bar. His wife reported she heard a loud struggle and saw a man running out the back. The man had no hat or coat.

Parker examined the body, lit his pipe, and declared the killer knew the victim because the wounds were mostly on the victim’s right side.

“Washington Hunter was a left-sided man,” said Parker. “He had a medical condition where his vital organs were transposed from where they usually are. That means the heart is on his right side. The killer struck Hunter mostly on the right side where the heart is. And don’t say the killer was just left handed; the killer had to reach across Washington’s body to stab him like that. And there’s more than one killer, too. Washington Hunter was too strong to be overpowered by only one man.”

A search of the house turned up another clue: a new fedora hat that Mrs. Hunter said she had not seen before. Parker noted it was a different size from Washington’s hats as well, indicating it belonged to one of the killers.

From the brakeman on the train the killer jumped, Parker learned the killer was a blond-haired man with no overcoat,  no hat, and walked with a limp. The man Mrs. Hunter saw and the man the brakeman saw were not wearing overcoats. Even if they had been the same man, why go out without an overcoat in a blizzard? They must have come from some place with spring-like weather that day. Then Parker remembered what the neighbor told him the night of the murder; it had been warm in New York City! That’s where the killers must have come from. And if the killers had come from New York City, they most likely came by train.

Parker went to Riverside train station and asked the stationmaster about trains from New York and if he had noticed anyone getting off. The stationmaster’s information enabled Parker to deduce the 11:40 train was the most likely, but the stationmaster hadn’t noticed who had gotten off.

“You could check with the auditor’s office in Philadelphia,” the stationmaster suggested. “All the tickets go there after they’re collected. They can separate out the ones with Riverside as a destination”

Parker set off in his horse and buggy for the auditor’s office in Philadelphia where he was given a bundle of punched Riverside tickets from the 11:40 train from New York. Four of the tickets to Riverside originated in New York and had been punched by conductor Thomas Dennison.

When Parker told Dennison he was interested in the night of the blizzard, Dennison remembered the four men from New York. They were all well dressed, spoke with German accents, and one was drunk. Dennison gave good descriptions of each man and said another conductor named Owens had just arrived and he had worked the 11:40 and a return train the next morning.

“Yes, I remember them,” Owens said, after examining the tickets. “They got on at Perkins the next morning and paid in cash, but the one in the brown suit wasn’t with them.”

Parker smiled. The drunk in the brown suit then must be the one who ran through the woods and hopped the train for Camden. It was all fitting together.

“Now, Mrs. Hunter,” Parker asked the next day, “can you give me the names of any recently hired hand who wasn’t local and who spoke with a German accent; someone who might have overheard you or Washington mention his left-sided condition?”

She named three men. Two of them lived in New York City. Parker contacted the New York police, who were familiar with Young, one of the men. Young was arrested, along with two friends who were with him. Parker then brought the two conductors to Tombs prison where they identified all three as the men who had been on the train. One, named Keller, was the blond haired drunk who had split off and run across county.

Parker got an extradition order and brought the three to New Jersey, but none of them would talk and Mrs. Hunter could not make a positive identification. Parker could now prove they were in the area the night of the murder and departed the next day, but still couldn’t prove any of them were involved.

“We’ll get them to talk by using the unnatural detail,” Parker told Dean. “Do you remember how Keller split off from the others the night we tracked them? Keller was in unfamiliar territory in the dark, yet he went on his own. The most likely reason he split off is that he wanted to get away from the others.”

“But he was with them when he was picked up in New York afterwards,” Dean pointed out.

“Yes. Whatever the problem was, it somehow got fixed later, and didn’t exist before the murder. The only change in the status of the gang was that when they came down Keller was drunk. But by the time they ran from Hunter’s house several hours later, he would have had time to sober up. Maybe he hadn’t bargained for a murder. Maybe he thought it was more dangerous to be around the others than to go it alone, or maybe he realized he had something on him he had to get rid of or conceal in case he was caught. Keller talks like an educated man, so I’m going to check with authorities in Washington and see if they have any information on him.”

The State Department reported back that Otto Keller was the missing son of the mayor of Stuttgart, Germany and came from a noble family. He had come to America several months before and disappeared.

Parker took Keller aside and showed him a picture of Washington Hunter.

“Do you see that?” he asked. “That’s the man you murdered.  You are in something very serious. We need to let the people back in Stuttgart know about it so they can arrange for your defense.”

Keller went pale. “No. Don’t do that! It wasn’t me. Young killed him. I didn’t even want to come with them. They got me drunk in a bar in the Bowery and got me on the train. I thought it was a prank at first, but when they killed the old man I just wanted to get away. I was afraid they’d blackmail my father back in Germany.”

Parker nodded. “And that is why you ran in a different direction? To get away from them?”

“Yes. Also I wanted to have a chance to tear the labels out of my suit in case I was caught. They had my family crest on them.”

Parker patted Keller on the shoulder.

“Now you need to write it all down,” he said.

With Keller’s confession, the case broke open. The murderers, Young and Braun, were sentenced to be hanged in the courtyard of the prison in Mt. Holly. The fourth member of the gang was killed in a barroom brawl before he could be arrested.

When Parker went to the yard of the Burlington County Jail to witness the execution, Charles Braun decided to make a break for it. A few minutes before he was to be executed Braun struck at two guards with a bludgeon he fashioned from lead pipe he took from his cell.   The guards were able to knock the weapon from his hands as he fled into the prison courtyard. As he got closer to freedom, Braun found an ax and raised it to strike at the remaining guards. Parker, who had been standing in the rear, ran up behind Braun and knocked the ax from his hands. Braun was recaptured and then executed under heavy guard. In an unusual example of modesty, Ellis Parker’s diary for that day simply noted that he had attended the execution, with no mention of his derring-do.

 

Although the Washington Hunter case was one of a number of sensational murders Ellis Parker successfully closed during this period, the predominant crime continued to be horse thievery. Today, so many years removed from that era, people tend to think of horse thievery as a less serious, almost humorous type of crime; and horse thieves seem more like rascals than real criminals. In New Jersey, though, as in much of America during the early part of the century, the theft of a horse was a very serious crime indeed. New Jersey was mostly rural, and consisted of numerous small family farms. A farmer’s horse represented a large part of both his wealth, and his ability to produce food and income. Since the automobile was still in its infancy, a horse was usually the farmer’s only means of transportation and only means of getting to market. If someone stole a man’s horse, he might very possibly be stealing his livelihood and endangering the victim’s family as well.

Much of the horse thieving could be traced to ex-hired hands that were easily caught, but some of the crimes presented more of a challenge.