Dark and Tangled Threads of Crime: San Francisco’s Famous Police Detective, Isaiah W. Lees

By William B. Secrest
Word Dancer Press $15.95

Reviewed by Kevin Mullen

It is a commentary on the impermanence of fame that few modern San Franciscans

would be able to identify Isaiah Lees, the first Captain of Detectives in the San Francisco Police Department. Similarly, it would have been just as difficult to find anyone in San Francisco in the second half of the nineteenth century who was unfamiliar with Captain Lees and his accomplishments.

In his "Dark and Tangled Threads of Crime," Bill Secrest begins to set things aright by rescuing Lees from an undeserved obscurity. Isaiah Lees, whose almost 50-year career as a San Francisco police detective gained him an international reputation as one of the world’s leading detectives, is reflected in Secrest's biography as one of those rare individuals whose talents and temperament are uniquely suited to their time, place, and situation.

When municipal police departments were first established in nineteenth century cities, the initial concept was that uniformed "preventive" police officers would, by their presence on patrol, inhibit those inclined to commit crime. Some of the proponents of the new system believed that predatory crime could actually be eliminated by these methods.

As a practical matter, no municipality has ever had a tax base sufficient to provide enough preventive patrols to eliminate crime and it soon became evident that something more was needed. Beginning in Boston in 1846, American cities began forming detective police units. Patrol officers would attempt to prevent crime or make an arrest if possible. Detectives were expected to follow up on those cases in which no arrest was made in order to identify offenders, or, when arrests were made, to do the post-arrest collection of evidence necessary to secure a conviction.

The police force established in San Francisco in 1849—the year Lees arrived— was a preventive or protective department; there was no detective element. By early 1851, however, as offenders slipped through the justice system, the Daily Alta California, after one particularly egregious lapse, commented that "it should be the duty of some one, when notorious thieves are thus arrested, to hunt up evidence and convict the suspected persons, if guilty."

Like many others. Lees was unsuccessful in his efforts to find gold and he returned to San Francisco where he went to work for the Union Iron Works, South of Market Street. It was there, in 1852, that he received his first taste of the work that was to consume his life.

In September, adjacent to where Lees worked, a Spaniard named Jose Forni was observed by several witnesses to chase down a Mexican named Rodriquez in broad daylight and stab him to death. There was no question that Forni had done the stabbing, but his story was that he had killed the man in self-defense after the man had tried to kill and rob him of $300 he was carrying. Though not yet a member of the department. Lees became involved in the crime through friendships with police officers and he aided materially in prosecuting the case. Forni was found guilty in District Court and later that year was hanged on Russian Hill before a crowd of thousands, earning the dubious honor of being the first man legally executed in American San Francisco.

In response to a spate of unsolved robberies, several months later the editor of the Alta again brought up the subject of establishing a detective police force. "[We]would suggest the organization of a small 'detective police' of about six men here," he wrote, "who would be selected with the greatest care as to their integrity and capabilities." Nothing was to come of the suggestion at that time, either.

On October 26, 1853, the 23 year-old Isaiah Lees was appointed to the police force, unknowingly putting himself on the ground floor of a new era of police work in the Far West. A year later a basic detective unit was indeed finally initiated.

The new officer's abilities were quickly recognized and he was put in charge of the detective unit with the title of assistant captain. In those early days. Lees and his men had to depend on natural abilities, rather than a criminal science that was yet to evolve. They became incredibly adept at gathering evidence, isolating and prosecuting suspects, and recognizing criminals from meager descriptions originating hundreds of miles away.

Although appointed captain of detectives in 1856, in the turbulent political climate of the early department Lees was soon bounced back to patrolman. Reappointed captain in late 1859, he was to hold that post continuously until appointed Chief of Police in 1897.

Lees led a life of high excitement and drama, ranging from corralling burglars and con men to chasing stage robbers and forgers around the country. His physical prowess, as well as his innovative, psychological approach to fighting crime, made him truly a legend in his own time.

In his detailed study of Lees' career during the second half of the nineteenth century, Secrest takes us from the turbulent days of the Vigilance Committees of the early 1850s to the "Crime of the Century" belfry murders near the century's end. Along the way he records the criminal justice history of the city and the important part Lees played in the story. In accomplishing his task, Secrest shows us the exciting evolution of a fascinating city, the development of the detective police, and the life of Isaiah Lees.

Isaiah Lees has long deserved to be the subject of a full biography, and Bill Secrest is a worthy chronicler of that life.

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