Leon Turrou: The Greatest Detective of them All?

by Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones

 

Look at the FBI’s official website, and you’ll find a reference to one of America’s greatest detectives, Leon Turrou. The website explains that in 1938 Turrou was the Bureau’s lead investigator into a German spy ring. However, this official FBI narrative observes that his “background simply did not prepare him for the nuances of an espionage case,” and states that he stood “accused of being an overzealous government agent motivated by profit and fame.”

FBI records from the 1930s accessed through the Freedom of Information Act tell a more rounded story. Initially, Turrou was the apple of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s eye. According to Hoover’s trusted confidant Clyde Tolson, the detective had “an uncanny knack of securing information.” Chicago special agent in charge Earl Connelley stated plainly that he was the “best investigator of criminal violations in the Bureau.”[F 51] The records show that Turrou’s colleagues complained he was too competitive, not very collegiate, and unsuitable for promotion to administrative duties. But those colleagues were unanimous in their opinion that he was an investigative genius.

These diverse judgments prompt the question, what makes a great detective? They also call for an explanation of how, from his pinnacle in the 1930s, Turrou could have fallen so far in the FBI’s esteem. The FBI was in that decade, as it is today, the nations’ premier detective agency. To have been the best detective in the best detective agency is quite something. A most singular series of events must have occurred to cause Turrou to fall out of favor, and into historical obscurity.

Let’s take a look at Leon Turrou and what happened to him, and then see how he shapes up in comparison with some of America’s other great detectives.

Leon Turovsky, as he then was known, was born in the Russian-controlled town of Kobryn, Poland, on 14 September 1895. He gave widely divergent accounts of his early years. So cavalier was his approach to the truth, that it gave ammunition to his future detractors. Also, it may be conjectured, it was a trait that explained why he could detect mendacity in criminal suspects. He said he was not Jewish, but he was. He said he was an orphan, but he was not. He said he fought with the French Foreign Legion on World War I’s Western Front and had a shrapnel wound to show for it. An FBI medical examination did confirm the wound, but on another occasion he claimed to have fought on the eastern front.

This much we do know for sure, that he arrived at New York’s Ellis Island immigration processing depot on 12 March 1913. After casual employment and an unhappy love affair with a girl called Olga, he does appear to have returned to Europe to fight against Germany. Recovering from his war wound in a Paris hospital, he met his future wife Teresa and they had two sons. 1921 found Turrou in Russia with the American Relief Mission led by Herbert Hoover. By now the master of seven languages, he was a translator with a mind of his own. When corrupt communist soldiers held up U.S. grain deliveries, Turrou prodded his boss to confront the notorious Soviet secret service chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. In the tense meeting, Turrou was persuasive. As he recorded, Dzerzhinsky issued an order to his comrades “with not a trace of emotion on his deathmask face:” “The trains will move, and if you fail, the supreme punishment is waiting for you.” [F 56]

By 1921, J. Edgar Hoover wanted Turrou for his agency (then called the Bureau of Investigation). Turrou could not join because he lacked the minimum qualification of a law degree. However, in the presidential election of 1929 he used his linguistic skills to campaign in New York’s multi-ethnic East Side for the ultimate victor, Herbert Hoover, and his reward was his appointment to the Bureau as a special agent.

Turrou rightly revelled in his image as a tough guy. In spite of his unimposing stature – 5 feet 8 inches, 143 pounds, and a permanent limp – he never shrank from fisticuffs. On one occasion, he pursued a pickpocket out of a New York streetcar. When the heavily built suspect turned to fight, he floored him with a straight right, and then held him down until a policeman arrived to make the arrest.

At the time, the Bureau’s G-men could not make arrests, and did not carry guns. Though the mobster era forced him to adjust, J. Edgar wanted to preside over a detective agency, not a bunch of gunslingers. And in spite of his physical toughness, Turrou fitted the cerebral mold.

By the time he was assigned to the spy case in February 1938, Turrou had worked on over 3,000 cases. He started in Chicago, where his boss Connelley asked him to track down Ignatz Skropinski, a violent bank robber on the run from Leavenworth prison who had eluded the grasp of the Bureau’s more experienced personnel. Turrou overheard Mrs. Skropinski telling her daughter, in Polish while peeling a large potato, that Ignatz was in a particular barber shop. Turrou found a policeman to make the arrest, and Connelley was mightily impressed.

There followed an impressive catalogue of further successes. Turrou developed certain interrogative techniques, such as offering a cigarette at the right moment, or springing a witness on an off-guard suspect just when the suspect was telling critical untruths. Building on an uncanny ability to understand and exploit people’s personalities and weaknesses, he had a mesmerizing effect on those whom he questioned.

Criminals who knew that to talk to him meant signing their own death warrants did so anyway. An example occurred in the course of the Charles Lindbergh, Jr., kidnap and murder investigation. In March 1932, Bruno Richard Hauptmann climbed into the 20-months-old infant’s bedroom near Hopewell in New Jersey, abducted him, and sent a ransom note to the father of the child, the world famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. By the time the Bureau caught up with Hauptmann the little boy was dead, and fearing retribution the murderer proved a hard nut to crack. Turrou sat with Hauptmann for hours. The killer knew he should not supply an example of his handwriting that could be compared with the handwriting on the ransom note. Yet Turrou persuaded him, against his better judgment, to write out passages from the Wall Street Journal. Hauptmann went to the electric chair in April 1936.

The German intelligence operation exposed in 1938 was often called the “Rumrich spy ring” after Guenther Gustave Maria Rumrich, a minor cog in the greater machine who just happened to be the first spy arrested. Turrou insisted on calling it instead the “Nazi spy ring,” and made it out to be a much more serious affair. A section of American opinion disagreed – the New York Times declared that in an age of transparency espionage was redundant, and warned that the outbreak of spy hysteria might lead to the formation of an American “super-espionage” agency that was not “wanted or needed here.” [F 300]

Turrou was correct in emphasising the menace posed to American values and national security by the Abwehr, as the German spying outfit was called. For Abwehr agents sought and obtained technological military secrets. Hitler, who rightly acknowledged the emergence of U.S. technological superiority, wanted America’s secrets so that Germany could imitate them, and so that his armed forces would know what they faced if and when they fought against the United States. Hitler’s spies sent home a lot of trivia, but also vital secrets: for example, details of the Norden gyroscopic bombsight, the hull design of the new generation of top-speed destroyers, information on the computerization of code setting and breaking, the design of aircraft retraction devices on the latest class of aircraft carriers, and blueprints of the new generation of American fighter planes.

The foregoing was a shock to America when details emerged. In the wider, more wicked world, such peacetime espionage was standard practice. There were, however, some nastier aspects to spying by the Abwehr, which was increasingly penetrated and influenced by the fascist secret police, the Gestapo. There was an element of ruthlessness that one would not have expected in peacetime: a plan to kidnap and possibly murder a U.S. Army officer who knew about America’s East Coast defences, the infiltration of Gestapo agents into New York, the murder of two innocent Californian women in an effort to pressurize a San Francisco industrialist into cooperating with the Abwehr, and a plan, discussed with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, to set up a high-class brothel in Washington, D.C., where military officers and government officials would be honey-trapped.

Finally, although the German word abwehr means “defence,” there was aggressive intent. The Abwehr chased after data on American defence installations, not just along the East Coast, but also in other strategic areas such the Panama Canal. It was interested in potential bombing targets. It planned to use one of its charming agents, Kate Moog, to open an avenue to strategic thinking in the White House. Once Hitler had taken care of Europe, his next target for aggression was the United States.

With his customary panache, shrewdness and intuition, Turrou exposed most of the personnel of the Nazi spy ring in America, and revealed their aims and methodology. He made mistakes. Notably, he allowed one of his prize informants to leave the United States. Ignatz Griebl was a New York gynaecologist and prominent anti-Semite who doubled as a local coordinator of Abwehr espionage. Moog was his mistress, and was the originator of the Washington brothel idea. Griebl told Turrou he was afraid to return to Germany since it was known he had talked to the FBI. But, before he could be used in the courtroom, he suddenly left for his homeland, where the government rewarded him handsomely, for example by expropriating a Jewish vacation property in Bavaria and a Jewish medical practice in Vienna, and giving both to its valued spy.

Nevertheless, armed with information he had extracted from Griebl, Rumrich, Moog, and many other interviewees, Turrou pieced together the evidence that led to the conviction of four spies in a widely publicized trial in the fall of 1938. Before the trial began, he resigned from the FBI to start a financially rewarding but also deeply moral campaign against the Nazis. He wrote articles for the New York Post that yielded a best-selling book, and the book gave rise the Warner Brothers movie, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, featuring Edward G. Robinson in the role of a character based on Turrou.

Turrou’s embarkation on publicity was the reason why he fell from grace. Hoover wanted to keep control of his agency’s image, and to deter the desertion for more lucrative pastures of the special agents the FBI had so painstakingly selected and trained. He dismissed Turrou retrospectively “with prejudice,” from a date prior to the special agent’s resignation, depriving him of pension rights, and then he tried to blacklist him from further federal employment. In spite of this, the gifted detective helped the U.S. to hunt down genocidal criminals in World War II. However, he then emigrated to France to take care of security for the petro-industrialist J. Paul Getty. By the time he died in Paris in 1986, he had joined the list of America’s forgotten personalities.

So what makes a great detective, and how does Turrou shape up in comparison with others? J. Edgar Hoover, Clyde Tolson, and Earl Connolley had professional competence in mind when they first singled out Turrou as an exceptional talent. But outside of the FBI and other agencies, there has hitherto been no discussion of the wider criteria for judging greatness. Clearly competence is important, but America has produced many competent detectives. Given the American love of personality, one might suggest the ability to be famous must be one characteristic of greatness. Looking for more subtlety, perhaps one can borrow from fiction to create a tool for measuring reality. Your fictional detective is often a loner, and an anti-establishment figure. He or she may be reassuringly sinful in some ways, but also professes to have moral standards. Thus, Turrou’s contemporary Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe refused to do “all kinds of detective work” and accepted “only the fairly honest kinds . . . For one thing I don’t do divorce work.” [We Know 54]

Turrou met all the foregoing criteria, but there are other candidates for the accolade of detective greatness, as we shall see by reviewing some examples. In each case, we will look for evidence of competence, celebrity, and morality.

Allan Pinkerton in 1850 established the eponymous agency that became almost a synonym for private detection. He was especially talented at establishing his own fame, and was a gifted businessman. In a foretaste of later fictional detectives like Marlowe and Easy Rawlings, he circulated the view that other detectives were not to be trusted, but that he and his agency with its sound business practices could be depended upon. He also professed a kind of political morality. In his native Scotland, he supported the “physical force” branch of Chartism that sought the universal male franchise. In America, he supported the violent brand of anti-slavery associated with John Brown. However, he came down hard on workers who might resort to violence in pursuit of their rights. One might sum up by saying that he had controversial principles. Where Pinkerton fails to score highly is in the area of competence. Notoriously, he served for a spell as President Abraham Lincoln’s intelligence officer, with the task of estimating the strength of Confederate forces. He grossly overestimated Confederate strength, helping to deter the Union Army from launching an offensive that might have shortened the Civil War.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a mushroom growth in the number of private detective agencies. The main challenge to the supremacy of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency came from the William J. Burns Agency, established in 1909. Burns trained with the U.S. Secret Service and directed the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, 1921-24, but his celebrity arose from his private work on individual cases. In 1910, members of the Bridgemen’s Union dynamited the Los Angeles Times Building in protest against the newspaper’s anti-labor union editorial stance, and there was heavy loss of life. Burns hunted down the perpetrators. He received acclaim also, a few years later, for his intervention in the Leo Frank case – he defied a wave of anti-Semitism in seeking to defend the Jewish Frank on a charge of having attacked and murdered the 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan. Though deeply unpopular (like Pinkerton) for his alleged lack of sympathy with labor, Burns scores highly in the area of competence. But in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s (about the corrupt sale of oil-rich federal lands), Burns was convicted of jury tampering, and his reputation never quite recovered from his association with the malfeasances of the Harding administration.

Burns liked to be known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes”, and befriended Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the progenitor of the literary archetype. We can also consider the case of Grace Humiston, a woman known in her day as “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes”. When Humiston took up the case of Ruth Cruger in 1917, she was a 46-year-old private detective who had distinguished herself by investigating neoslavery in the turpentine industry of the American South. The New York Police Department had encouraged the press to hint that when 18-year-old Cruger went missing, she had, perhaps voluntarily, entered the “white slavery” trade, or prostitution. Humiston acted on the countervailing premise that Gruger had fallen victim to an NYPD trusty, Alfredo Cocchi. She thus heralded a popular trope,  a private investigator of integrity who takes on the city police. She found Cruger’s “ripped” body in Cocchi’s cellar, and accused the NYPD of corruption before joining it as a special investigator and founding the Morality League of America. Humiston should have touched all bases as a great detective, but America was not yet ready for female fame, and she did not become a celebrity.

To examine these and further cases is to realize how tough it was to meet each one of the criteria of competence, fame, and morality. Melvyn Purvis was a contemporary of Turrou’s in the Bureau of Investigation, and later worked with his old colleague and friend in World War II intelligence. He was special agent in charge in mobster-ridden Chicago. On the evening of 21 July 1934 he lit a cigar outside the city’s Biograph movie theater. It was an action that made him a household name, for it was a signal to his men to open fire, and the notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who had been tracked to the theater, dropped dead. This was too much for Hoover, who sidelined Purvis just as he would Turrou. Purvis, like many an American lawman, was immensely brave. But his cognitive skills did not compare with Turrou’s, and when he wanted a confession he beat his suspect to a pulp, rather than offering a cigarette.

Policemen who took on their own hierarchies have a place in American affections. In January 1938, the same month as when the Abwehr planned to kidnap an American army officer, Los Angeles Police Department officers placed a bomb in an automobile belonging to their colleague Harry Raymond. Raymond won popularity by investigating police corruption on behalf of a civic group, and Earl Kynette of the LAPD’s Intelligence Squad was ultimately convicted in connection with the murder-by-bomb plot.

Years later, Frank Serpico became legendary for the same reason. When he was shot in the face during a drugs raid in Brooklyn, N.Y. on 3 February 1971, it was widely assumed the assault was a police set up because of his whistleblowing about NYPD corruption in the 1960s and 1970s. The movie Serpico (1973) starred Al Pacino in the lead role, and honored the courageous officer’s undercover work. A major reform of the NYPD followed. The pursuit of justice and honesty is a form of morality, and both Raymond and Serpico were effective detectives who enjoyed moments of fame. They do compare with Turrou, even if local police corruption does not compare in scale to what Hitler was doing to 1930s Germany and its minorities.

The case of Dave Toschi indicates that you can become famous on the basis not of substance, but of hype and style. Toschi worked at the homicide detail of the San Francisco Police Department between 1966 and 1978. His loud bow ties, tasteless suits and vulgar hairstyles made him a darling of the media, as did his quick-draw shoulder holster. His work on the Zodiac killings especially boosted his profile. The Zodiac serial murderer was responsible for 5 confirmed deaths, and he or she claimed to have dispatched 37. Early on, a Toschi-based film, Dirty Harry, featured Clint Eastwood. Then the 2007 movie Zodiac injected new life into the Toschi celebrity campaign. Toschi passes the fame test with flying colors, but not the competence test, for the Zodiac killer was never apprehended.

Times change, and the methodology of detection grows ever more sophisticated. John Fox, the FBI’s official historian, recently reminded me that many crime cases are cracked in the modest seclusion of the laboratory, and drew attention to the work of forensic pioneers like Calvin Goddard, August Vollmer, and Francis Glessner Lee. Psychological work has also become more important over the years. John E. Douglas of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, whose interviewing skills perhaps surpassed even those of Turrou, patiently listened to Charles Manson and many other psychopaths who were behind bars. He looked for personality traits and behavioral patterns that would help with the identification of criminals who were still at large. The 1991 movie, The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, won critical acclaim, and shone a rare ray of light on the utility of quietly practiced skills.

The FBI’s Carlos T. Fernandez demonstrated a further range of skills, skills appropriate to the new threat to America, organized international terrorism. From the late 1990s, Fernandez combatted Al Qaeda and similar groups. He faced organizational challenges: there was a history of FBI-CIA bickering and misunderstanding that America could no longer afford, and, in the face of global terrorism, there was a further need for international cooperation. Fernandez worked on these issues as head of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force. He also showed an appreciation of the principle that it is not always best to arrest a suspect (for example, young militants in Afghanistan). Sometimes, it is best to follow, and to listen.

To attempt to single out America’s greatest detectives is to encounter many twists and turns. Take, for example, the case of U.S. Secret Service chief Hiram C. Whitley. In 1871, the government gave the Secret Service the mission of penetrating the Ku Klux Klan, which at the time was terrorizing freedmen in the South and their white allies. With the assistance of some incredibly brave black informers, Whitley did a brilliant job, and U.S. marshals arrested the Klan’s ringleaders. Whitley was effective, and was famous – at least, he was infamous in the South. The task he undertook was highly moral, and compares with Turrou’s campaign against the Nazis. Yet Whitley was not a morally committed detective. Indeed, one reason for his success was that he was poacher turned gamekeeper, as he had been a slave catcher before the war. Turrou, by comparison, believed in his cause.

 

 

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is emeritus professor of history at the University of Edinburgh. He has authored or edited fifteen books, including The Nazi Spy Ring in America: Hitler’s Agents, the FBI, and the Case That Stirred the Nation.

Posted in Authors, Detectives.

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