July 25th marks the centennial anniversary of the arrests of seventeen Detroit aldermen and the secretary of the council committee in a fascinating, yet oh, so familiar, bribery "sting."
It seems one mayoral candidate, Andrew Green, wanted to discredit another mayoral candidate, "Honest Tom" Glinnan, and concocted an elaborate sting with the help of William Burns, the man called "America's Sherlock Holmes." They told City Council that the Wabash Railway Company wanted to have part of a street vacated so they could expand their freight warehouses. The Council was opposed to this and delayed the action. Mayor William Thompson and his hand-picked successor, Andrew Green, suspected the council was stalling in the hopes of obtaining bribes, so they enlisted the William Burns Detective Agency to investigate. (Green footed the eventual $10,000 bill.)
Burns was already considered "America's Sherlock Holmes" because he had, over the past few years, cracked a number of cases involving dynamiters, corrupt politicians, grifters, thieves, and murderers, seemingly with no useful clues. By 1912, the public had been made aware that Burns' incredible success came from his secret use of the dictograph, a device originally designed as a business intercom.
Dictographs had become so popular for eavesdropping that a model called a "Detective Dictograph" was being manufactured. The whole works fit into a case no larger than what people used to carry their "Pocket Kodaks" (cameras). Inside the case were a microphone, a long pair of wires, and a small amplifier connected to a telephone receiver. The microphone would be planted in a room and wired back to the amplifier in another room. With a detective dictograph, one of Burns' men would monitor and transcribe any incriminating conversations.
By 1912, Burns had moved, whenever possible, from a dictation-style dictograph to a "telegraphone," a high-quality recording device most often used for office dictation, which made convictions a snap. The best telegraphone at the time recorded with electromagnets onto wires that ran from one reel to another, similar to more recent tape recorders. The sound quality was good enough that voices were immediately recognizable, and made it impossible for defense attorneys to claim that someone was impersonating their client. The telegraphone would also record up to thirty minutes on a wire, which was much longer than could be accomplished on a record or cylinder recorder.
Burns had one of his detectives, a man named Walter Brennan, play the role of a Wabash representative, and he did an excellent job, forcing the aldermen to each come to his office and make their demands, which ranged from $200 to $1,000. Burns himself was there to arrest Glinnan, the president of the council, as he walked out of the "Wabash" office with $1,000 in his pocket. Faced with the telegraphonic evidence--and offered a job by Green if he confessed--Glinnan did, and the sting concluded as a complete success.
Or did it? The District Attorney dropped the cases against all but nine of the aldermen, those against whom he had the most airtight cases. The most solid of all, that of "Honest Tom," was bound over for the first trial. Glinnan's defense delayed for two years before the case finally went to trial. The defense claimed entrapment, Burns and Brennan were excoriated on the stand, and the jury was out all of 45 minutes before they came back with a not-guilty verdict. The DA dropped all the rest of the cases.
This is a case in which the mayor of Detroit concocted a sting operation detailed enough to use as a plot line in a movie. In doing so, he ended the political careers of a number of corrupt men, including Tom Glinnan. Huzzah! (as they might have said at the time.) In the end, Andrew Green decided not to run for mayor, but he kept his rival out of office and (sort of) cleaned up city hall. Yay?