Today, prosecuting criminal cases is a form of art. Detectives, crime lab personnel, and district attorneys get to work with scientific evidence like DNA sampling, fingerprint analysis, and ballistics testing.
Solving crimes is still difficult business. But, we have made great strides since the days when coerced confessions and eyewitness testimony consisted of the bulk of the “evidence” used in criminal prosecutions.
Recently, I finished the book, Legends and Lies, stories of the real West by David Fisher.
There were many interesting stories about American heroes like Kit Carson and David Crockett. However, the most interesting character in the book was the man considered to be America’s first modern detective, James B. Hume.
Born in New York in 1827, Hume was destined to be one of the premier lawmen of the Wild West. He left home in 1850 as he was swept up in the California gold rush. He would become financially successful by panning for gold in the rich lands in the West.
But, he was a law man at heart.
In 1860, he began his career as a peace officer serving as deputy tax collector for El Dorado County, California. He became one of the most prominent detectives of the times by using early scientific methods, particularly ballistics, to solve crimes.
Hume would gain national fame for his hunting down and eventual arrest of the gentleman robber, Black Bart.
Black Bart was a cunning and intelligent stage coach robber. He was also a gentleman. He never threatened any passengers, never shot a single person during his robberies, and often thanked the stage coach driver after he carried away his bounty.
He was also hard to catch. Black Bart lived a double life. In San Francisco, he was a well-respected “mining engineer.” However, he was known to disappear for days without any reason.
When he disappeared, he was robbing stage coaches owned by the Wells Fargo, a company that he despised.
While Black Bart was robbing stage coaches, Hume was like a blood hound on his trail. Hume personally visited the sites of all the robberies and patiently put together a valuable list of information.
In particular, he made special note of the reports by several witnesses that the robber’s boots were neatly slit at the toes as if to relieve foot ailments. This made sense based on the territory Bart covered running and walking from his robberies. Black Bart was afraid of horses so he always travelled on foot.
Hume’s major break occurred on November 3, 1883, when Bart robbed a Wells Fargo coach headed to Calaveras County. One of the drivers fired a shot at Bart, and forced him to flee. In a spot near the shooting, Hume found a small hunting camp that had been recently abandoned. He also found a blood-stained handkerchief bearing the laundry mark “F.X.0.7”.
Eventually, Hume tracked the origin of the handkerchief to a laundromat in San Francisco. The owner identified the F.X.0.7 handkerchief mark as that belonging to C.E. Bolton, a man who lived in the area. C.E. Bolton “Black Bart” was quickly arrested.
Hume was one of the first true detectives at a time when other lawmen were only using posses and serving arrest warrants at the point of a pistol to complete their work. Very few law enforcement officers in the 1880s methodically and scientifically searched for clues in crimes like we see today.
It is also interesting to note that Hume was portrayed by then actor Ronald Reagan in “Temporary Warden,” the first episode of the fourteenth season of Death Valley Days, which dramatizes an incident from the career of Hume.
Although not a household name, James Hume was an American hero. Detectives today can trace their training and modern tools for solving crimes back to the 1880s when James Hume was riding horseback in search of bandits and outlaws in the Wild West.