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The earliest known record of the negro detective Jackson Hieronymus Burke—the Moor—is an advertisement he ran in several Berlin newspapers in 1873, promising discretion and modest fees. We know nothing of his cases from this period, but, having traced the address given in the advertisement to one of the city’s poorer quarters (Prenzlauer Berg), believe they would have been limited to the lowest kind of work: finding stolen dogs, tracking suspected adulterers. After the advertisement, Burke drops from history until the fall of 1876, when he leaps from obscurity with a single feat of deduction.
All of Berlin had been baffled by the disappearance of the renowned theatre critic Wolfgang Metzger. The police searched the sewers, dug up his mistresses’ back gardens. They questioned actors whose abilities he had maligned, impresarios whose shows he had damned. Neither the body nor evidence of foul play was found. Then, two weeks later, a letter appeared in the newspaper: Metzger had not disappeared, but had murdered his twin, a wealthy hay merchant, and replaced him. The letter, signed by Burke, described how he had uncovered the truth when he visited the twin’s villa to offer his services. He’d been directed to the stables and, finding the man there, noticed the horses shying from his touch. “With that I understood all,” he added with the confident flourish he would keep for the rest of his career. The twin’s servants might not have recognized a difference between Metzger and his brother, nor the twin’s wife, but the horses, with their keen animal sense, had betrayed the critic, who had hoped, by impersonating his brother, to avoid his debtors.
The city was shocked by this revelation and amazed by its deliverer. Everyone had the same question on their lips: who was this man, and where had he come from? Even now we can only speculate. Burke never spoke of his past, nor of how he came to detection. One rumor holds that he was born a slave on a Texas sugar plantation in the early 1840s, another that he was the son of a New Orleans freedman. Records suggest that a negro detective—called, simply, El Negrito—practiced in Havana during the Civil War, but no proof connects him to Burke. We only know that Burke was American, that he was in his thirties when he arrived in Berlin, and that at the start of his career—in which he would solve over 700 cases and be memorialized in dozens of dime novels—he already possessed powers to rival the French masters Vidocq and Devergie.
Soon Burke’s photograph began appearing in shops, alongside etchings of the stable scene and a pamphlet, by a hack named Frisch, promising to teach its readers the detective’s secrets. He was invited to dinners, asked to salons—it was now, in the flush of his first triumph, that a columnist for the Zeitung, remarking on Burke’s color, gave him his nickname when he declared Burke their Othello, their Moor.
One must be wary of the newspaper and dime-novel illustrations, which often colored him darker than he was, thickened his lips, bulged his eyes. He was of middle height—five feet, seven inches tall—and possessed a slight paunch, a rather large brow, and a strong nose with a rounded tip. His eyes were hazel, his skin a deep chestnut, his mouth often shaped into a slight smile that, as the Kaiser famously remarked, simply said, “I know.” He never cultivated a moustache, kept his hair cropped close.
As for his dress, he wore English-cut suits of either gray or black wool, his sole ornaments three watch fobs hung from a golden chain. The fobs never changed, and any schoolchild in Wilhelm I’s Berlin could name them: the gold ship’s wheel to commemorate the Rhine Barge Mystery, the miniature shield presented to him by the Munich police in honor of his role in solving the Dubbel Murders, and the platinum-mounted bear claw given to him by the Prince von Schlieffen after he rescued Christiana, the prince’s intended, from her gypsy kidnappers. He wore them at all times—whether he was pursuing a clue in the sewers or lecturing the Reichstag on the criminal mind—perhaps as a warning of his constancy to those who would oppose him.
Not long after the Case of the Murdered Twin—when he began receiving regular commissions and collecting handsome fees—Burke moved from Prenzlauer Berg to Fasanenstrasse, on the far side of the Tiergarten. He occupied the entire fourth floor of his building. Rooms upon rooms circled the courtyard, and over the years he fitted them out to his exacting specifications. There were the main living quarters, of course, and the famous sitting room where he met his clients while reclining on his settee—to heighten the flow of blood to his brain, it was said. Then there were the rooms for his collections: one for the ordered cartons of lint and hair from the chief criminals of the Continent and Britain; one filled with jars of soils from around the world, which he employed in the identification of dirts found at crime scenes; and one for weapons of every description: blackjacks and saps, trays of bullets and blades, a kris from the Dutch East Indies, even an atlatl from the Polar regions. The chief of these rooms was the library. There he made his experiments, and there he kept his famous blue-morocco volumes—a vast collection of books and pamphlets, ranging from studies of African beetle carapaces to treatises on the patterns of broken glass, used in the study of clues.
With each new case (the Mystery of the Blue Hussar, the Case of the Poisoned Toothpowder) his fame swiftly grew. German bakers began producing the Moor’s Torte, a coffee-flavored pastry studded with “clues” (sultanas), and Moor Clubs spread across the Continent and in England—members blackened their faces and were given the details of a crime that must be solved by the end of the afternoon. Soon Burke was maintaining correspondence with other men of note (Javadpur the philosopher-rajah of Panjistan, Lord Roscomb the industrialist, Oscar Ilsberg the Swedish Darwin), and in 1884 he was summoned to Japan by Emperor Mutsuhito to solve the Golden Crane Murders plaguing the imperial family.
It was said that his nemesis was a past-master of the bassoon, his instrument having once belonged to the only man he’d killed with his own hands.
By 1881 one could open the newspaper on any given day, anywhere on the Continent and even in the United States, and read about Burke—that he had recovered a stolen jewel for the State Museum or hunted the vitriol-thrower Kurtz, that he had been seen having champagne with an actress at Dressel’s or sitting in Prince von Krollstein’s box at the opera, or that he had received some new recognition from the Kaiser or beaten the Prince of Wales at billiards. One famous article recorded the foods Burke ate in order to discover which aided his thinking (plums and kidneys, the reporter decided), while a number of others provided phrenological analyses of his skull, citing the enlarged organs of Comparison and Human Nature as the seat of his mental prowess.
In the course of his career, Burke battled many adversaries: the confidence man Reynolds, the assassin Fiori, the archspy Countess von Perlitz. But greatest and most dangerous of all was the shadowy crime-broker Heinrich Bloch.
In the fall of 1886, six-year-old Liesl von Eberbach, the daughter of the Interior Minister, was stolen from her home. Within a day letters began arriving at the papers bearing blood-spotted scraps of her dress. The letters asked no ransom, made no demands, but warned the girl would be killed in a week’s time. None could understand the kidnappers’ motive, nor find the faintest trace of their whereabouts—the letters bore postmarks from around the empire. Liesl’s father called Burke in to investigate, and with only a water stain and a sample of dust he determined she was being held in the Aquarium by two henchmen in the pay of Henri Guillard, the French ambassador’s attaché. Liesl was rescued, the city relieved, the Interior Minister supremely grateful.
But Burke was not satisfied. He recognized in the plan’s design a genius far beyond Guillard’s—its purpose, in terrorizing Liesl’s father, was to force his resignation and cause the German government to fall. Burke couldn’t question Guillard—he hid himself in the embassy, claiming immunity—but when he tried the henchmen they gave him a name, Bloch. They never met the man, they said, nor knew who he was. But it seems they had told Burke enough. The next morning they were found murdered in their cells.
In the months and years that followed, Burke devoted himself to the study of Bloch, yet he discovered little about the fiend, why he turned to crime, or how he came to dominate it. The bastard son of Joachim Bloch, spice merchant, and his Javanese mistress, Heinrich Bloch was given the running of his father’s spice house at a young age and used it as a front throughout his career. Living in the Nikolaiviertel as a simple burgher, Bloch had a perfect cover. But Burke knew that Bloch arranged the bombing of Grand Duke Alexey’s carriage during his state visit, masterminded the Reichsbank Jewel Robbery, and plotted the mine collapse at Augsburg, in which a hundred men died. It was said that Bloch controlled a network of a thousand criminals in the city; that he was a past-master of the bassoon, his instrument having once belonged to the only man he’d killed with his own hands; that as soon as he’d planned and seen the execution of a thousand crimes he would retire from the spice house and return to Java and live on a boat; that he demanded souvenirs from each of his terrible schemes and kept them in pine cabinets: a golden bolt from Alexey’s carriage, the preserved finger of one of the Reichsbank’s murdered clerks, a lump of bloodstained ore from Augsburg.
For six years Burke pursued Bloch but failed to prove his guilt in any crime. Some claim that Burke could have done so, but that he took a connoisseur’s pleasure in tracing each of Bloch’s plots and allowed him his freedom to ensure there would be more. Most, though, find such a suggestion preposterous. At the end of six years, in the winter of 1892, Bloch disappeared. The spice house was boarded up. Every trace of Bloch was gone. When Burke mentioned this to the papers, he said he suspected some new villainy but could not name it.
A tantalizingly brief mention in a catalog of homes of the celebrated, published in 1890 and discovered only recently, describes a room in Burke’s house holding a dozen glass curios filled with ceramic blackamoors. “Some stand nobly, others ride steeds, and yet others kneel and bear gifts,” the catalog reads. “Blackamoors of all shapes and sizes, bareheaded or in turbans and fezes.” His clients sent them, which tells us much, but what tells us more is that he kept them. For all our research, Burke himself remains a mystery, yet here we have a clue. He had a passage of Pushkin etched on a brass tablet and mounted beneath the central curio, which the catalog gives thus: “He felt that he was for them a kind of rare beast, a peculiar alien creature, accidentally brought into a world with which he had nothing in common.” He was perhaps not as at home in Berlin as is commonly assumed, and with this passage as a lens, we can see traces of a deep melancholy in Burke’s dinners alone at the Café Bauer, his solitary trips to the shore.
How does one compare Burke’s cases, weigh the greatness of his reasoned deduction in one against that required for another?
There were yet other rooms whose contents we do not know, entire hallways unrecorded by history. Here speculation enters. Perhaps he had a dozen bedchambers, choosing among them depending upon his temper. Sometimes, thinking of Burke’s end, I picture him roaming the halls on a long night, never finding quite the right room.
Despite the invitations to hunting parties and long weekends at castles, or the occasional notice about his being seen with an actress, Burke’s life was solitary. He explained this as a necessity of his profession, claiming in one of his more famous maxims that a detective must form few attachments. But that did not mean his heart was immune to tender feelings. Through careful study, we have discovered evidence of a great passion.
In the summer of 1885 Burke was called to Wiesbaden to investigate a spate of jewel thefts. While pretending to be on holiday—attending the spa’s gatherings, circling the room with a glass of the waters—he met an Englishwoman named Olivia Ashdown. They were soon seen strolling through the Kurhaus Kollonade and riding the funicular up the Neroberg, arms locked, engaged in long, close conversations. Never before had Burke so doted on a female. But the other bathers disapproved. Helmut Strauss, the noted horseman and one of Burke’s acquaintances, warned him that he went too far, that all were talking of his dark hands on her white bosom.
Burke promptly broke with Olivia, but after he solved the case (an elderly waiter was the thief) he stayed in Wiesbaden for a week. Such lingering is unprecedented—he always returned swiftly to Berlin at a case’s conclusion—yet this time he retired to a cottage above the city and sent for champagne and lobsters. Though the newspaper accounts make no mention of Olivia, it takes little effort to determine their break had merely been a ruse. When Burke finally returned to Berlin, the papers reported his surprisingly happy demeanor. With these details we have reconstructed the week he must have spent with Olivia: the long mornings in bed, the tender suppers in dishabille.
The evidence of Burke’s relationship with Olivia is scant, but it weighs heavily. Three months after Wiesbaden he was dining at Dressel’s when he received word of another rash of thefts, this time at Bad Homburg. He left immediately, taking the express. Yet no record exists of the crimes at Bad Homburg, nor at any of the other spa towns to which he was summoned every three months, and where he would stay for a week, lodged in seclusion outside of town. He never commented on these “cases,” except to call them delightful.
How does one compare Burke’s cases, weigh the greatness of his reasoned deduction in one against that required for another?
The Wannsee murder reportedly gave him the most fits. A body was found in an industrialist’s hunting lodge, arranged on a bier of pages torn from directories and volumes of Goethe. No one could identify the dead man, who was stripped of all his clothes. Burke took months to solve the case. The oddest is the Ware Murder, in which the murderer hired Burke to solve the crime. Or is it the Bamberg Mystery, in which the bludgeoned duke seemed to come back to life? Then there are the cases he solved in single sittings, like the Theft of the Frankenheim Clock, the Affair of the Red Letter, the Case of the Hidden Blackmail, or the recovery of Wutter’s collection of rare ferns, stolen in the light of day. Is that Burke at his most brilliant, his mind so keen he needn’t leave his study? Such cases are too numerous to count. The case that caught the most international attention was that of the Taskmaster: an under-clerk in a shipping office who had organized an army of women—the daughters of the city’s chief families—by sending them letters threatening them with slanders. He had ordered them to set the fires for neither profit nor revenge, but for his pleasure alone.
When questioned on the subject, Burke would chuckle—a chuckle that stirred shivers in the listener, the reporters wrote—and say his greatest case was yet before him.
We know of three serious attempts made on Burke’s life.
The first came one evening while he was leaving a theater. A man ran up to him and stabbed at him with a dagger. The attacker missed, the blade passing through Burke’s coat, and was overpowered by a policeman. Burke identified him as Dr. Fulberg, a government scientist who’d been ruined when the detective uncovered the Mosquito Ring’s plot to steal the War Ministry’s supply of quinine.
Then the Black Lion, a band of anarchists that Burke had foiled multiple times, caught him halfway up the Siegessäule and shot at him. He escaped with only a slight wound.
He ignored invitations to the Imperial Palace, and was cited twice for drunkenness, once for horsewhipping a prostitute.
In the third attempt, an assassin, working for a consortium of villains—perhaps Bloch, though the connection was never firmly made—snuck into Burke’s rooms with the intention of garroting him in his sleep. The assassin got lost in the halls, and as he wandered from room to room Burke crept up behind him and stuck him with a blow dart from his collection, putting him instantly to sleep.
Doubtless there were more, but they have not been recorded. Once, when asked about the attempts, Burke said he did not mind. “Let them come. Very well. But they mustn’t touch—” At that he broke off. When pressed, he refused to say anything else, though it is generally agreed he was referring to the harrowing events of the Schott Affair, which had passed just months before.
Aside from the gossip at Wiesbaden, the only other specific mention of Olivia Ashdown in Burke’s history—and perhaps the greatest evidence of his love for her—comes in the middle of his investigation of the murder of the mirror magnate Johannes Schott. In 1893 Schott invited his family, as well as Burke and several old army friends, to his country mansion to celebrate his birthday weekend. But just before the first night’s dinner, Schott was found stilettoed in his study. At Burke’s insistence the police sealed the mansion while he examined the rooms and conducted interviews, and by the next morning he had discovered Schott’s son’s gambling debts, his valet’s true identity (he was Schott’s nephew), and a suspicious ash pile in the garden. Burke was about to question the rest of the staff when he received an unsigned telegram. To the consternation of the police and the papers, Burke fled to Bad Kreuznach.
There, the telegram had told him, Olivia—later identified by the papers as “an unknown woman”—lay dying. She had been poisoned, and as the doctors treated her, Burke contributed his knowledge of antidotes. The toxin was rare, taken from the back of a Borneo toad, and, despite the telegram’s warning, she had not been given a lethal dose. Once Olivia was beyond danger, Burke returned to the Schott mansion. Within an hour he identified the murderer as Schott’s wife, and as he questioned her she confirmed his suspicions, confessing she had arranged Olivia’s poisoning with the hope of stopping him. When Burke asked how she knew of his love, she answered, “I have a friend.” Scarcely before the last word had passed from her lips, she fell back in her chair. Knowing she was caught, she had swallowed a generous dose of prussic acid.
The identity of Frau Schott’s “friend” remains unknown. Some hold that it was Bloch, that he had stepped briefly out of retirement to give Frau Schott the plan, merely to unnerve Burke. Others believe Frau Schott was a secret devotee of the Reverend Stoecker, who, along with his attacks on Jews, had begun deriding the government’s reliance on “this trained ape in man’s clothes.” At any rate, Burke’s love for Olivia had become known to the criminal world, and now he had to choose between her and his profession. He endangered her, and she made him vulnerable: any fiend who wished to thwart him need only threaten Olivia. His decision seems clear. After the Schott Affair, the record of his cases contains no more false entries of jewel thefts in spa towns.
Not long after the Schott Affair, Burke received perhaps his highest honor. In the winter of 1894, an opera inspired by his career, Otto Offenbüttel’s Des Mohren Dilemma, opened in Berlin. Set in seventeenth-century Rome, Des Mohren Dilemma intertwines a detective, Burccino, with the fate of two unfortunate lovers, Alberto and Francesca. At first Burccino rebuffs their entreaties for help. By the opera’s end he rushes to save them, only to find he is too late.
Two anecdotes survive from the opera’s run. The first occurred during the second intermission on the opera’s opening night, after Burccino has unknowingly aided the villain in his plot to divide the lovers. Burke was smoking in the salon, chatting with Prince von Krollstein and a stoop-shouldered general, when a drunk junker in a lancer’s uniform accosted him. “You fool!” the junker cried as he tottered up to him, taking hold of Burke’s sleeve and scowling. “How could you? Those poor young things. How could you? Fool!”
All in the salon turned toward them, and for a moment Burke was startled. Then, he smiled and said, “I’ve been asking the same question. I find this Burccino rather blind.” The strained moment passed—the junker, swaying on his feet, was pulled away by his friends—and received only a slight notice in the papers. And yet is this incident not a brief foreshadowing of what was to come?
The second anecdote concerns Burke’s reaction to the opera itself, which he attended every night of its run. His constant presence became a piece of Berlin gossip as those in the audience noted that he always wept during Burccino’s first aria, after Burccino refuses the lovers and laments that he was not fashioned for love but reason alone.
The next year, Burke worked with a frantic brilliance, crisscrossing the Continent, completing investigations in the span of hours, sometimes minutes. Stolen pearls in Nimes followed by poisoned bread in Konigsberg, blackmail in Prague followed by a kidnapping in Rotterdam, counterfeiters in Worms followed by a druidic murder in Rügen. He turned nothing down, allowed himself no rest. For the first time since the Case of the Murdered Twin, he tracked lost dogs and followed adulterers. Observers noticed a sharp change in his behavior. He didn’t smile. He was cruel to waiters, short with clients, dour with reporters. He ignored invitations to the Imperial Palace, and was cited twice for drunkenness, once for horsewhipping a prostitute. Except for the tinge of desperation that infused his labors, one might consider this period a florescence. It was as if he knew.
On December 5, 1895, the War Minister visited Fasanenstrasse and disclosed to Burke a grave predicament. He had made a secret bargain with Russia: in exchange for 3,000 Millburg rifles (whose precision was unmatched), the Czar would quietly transfer a strip of land along the China Sea to German hands. But the rifles had been stolen in transit, and the Czar’s minister was furious, accusing the Germans of duplicity. Were the rifles not recovered, an international crisis would be unavoidable.
That evening Burke traveled to the far edge of Silesia, the site of the theft, and once there followed a set of subtle clues (specks of foreign soil in the snow, a dropped button, a twisted leaf) south and west across the Austrian frontier. At Pressburg he cabled the Minister that he was certain the thieves were traveling by river barge. But the next day the Minister received a disturbing report. He’d sent several of his own agents to aid Burke. They’d taken rooms for the night in a tavern, and when they called on Burke in the morning they found he was gone. His night candle was burned to a nub, unreadable notes and sketches lay scattered on his table, and his bed was unused, his small traveling bag still beside it, unpacked. There was no sign of a struggle, and the agents hoped Burke had simply taken a morning stroll to order his thoughts. But with each passing hour they knew: wherever he was and however he got there, he was already far away and would not be returning. The Minister confined himself to his office and sent a barrage of conciliatory telegrams to the Russians while he awaited more news from his men, whom he’d ordered to search the riverbanks for Burke’s corpse.
Burke’s life and career give rise to hundreds of unanswered questions, but perhaps most vexing of all is the matter of those three days on the Danube.
Then, three days later, Burke turned up in Istanbul. He was found by an Armenian dockworker in the hold of a barge. His mouth was gagged, he was tied to a chair, and the rifles were stacked behind him. On his lap lay a note: “To the Ottoman Government, with my Compliments—Bloch.”
What happened next is at the same time baffling and inevitable. The papers accused Burke of treason—an accusation the Minister encouraged, as it distracted from his own role in the blunder—and the people swiftly followed, hurtling rage at one who, not a week before, they had adored. Was it his color? Or that, so used to his successes, they could not understand his failure, could only interpret it as treachery? They said he had organized the theft of the rifles and planned all along to deliver them to the Turks. The Berliner Kurier claimed that for years Burke had been a secret agent of the Sublime Porte, that in exchange for the rifles he was promised a principality of his own and a fully stocked harem. They printed a cartoon of him dancing for the Kaiser while in the background Sultan Abdul Hamid laughed. The Münchner Telegraf wrote that his brutish nature had finally overtaken him, that his being tied to a chair was a cheap ruse. The Zeitung interviewed Police Commandant Fuchs, who assured reporters there was no secret archfiend Bloch and excused Burke’s claims otherwise as the delusions of an overstrained mind, while the Frankfurter Abendblatt opined that it was natural that the Moor should help the Ottomans. They referred to his duskiness, and to the blood of southern climes coursing through his veins.
When Burke returned to Berlin—the Turks kept the rifles but sent him back—angry crowds gathered beneath his windows in Fasanenstrasse, calling for his expulsion. He refused to defend himself, said nothing of how he’d been caught or what had occurred during the three days of his disappearance. Within a week he was confined, for his safety, to a cell in a police station near the Ostbahnhof, where he received the news of each fresh development—that a mob had rushed into his apartment, overturning the shelves of soils; that the Moor Clubs had been swiftly disbanded; that, at the Reverend Stoecker’s urging, people across the empire were building bonfires and burning the albums they’d filled with photographs and clippings of his adventures—with a stoic acceptance.
But by the time he was delivered to the French border, he was visibly broken: meek as an invalid, given to shaking. Our only record of him at this moment comes from the diary of one Sergeant Heinz. Not one of the newspapers sent a reporter—interest in the Scandal having been swept aside by a suicide pact that had claimed a member of the general staff and a junior officer’s wife—and when Burke’s guards let him go, he walked through the Belfort Gap and out of history. Some believe he settled in Tunis, others that he became a hotel detective in New York, but no one knows for sure.
Burke’s life and career give rise to hundreds of unanswered questions, but, so many decades after, perhaps most vexing of all is the matter of those three days on the Danube. His complete silence on the subject has divided the followers of his career into two hostile camps. The first holds that everything is as it appears. Bloch trapped him. The villain’s vanishing had been a ploy, giving him years to plot Burke’s downfall. He planned every detail, foresaw every effect—even how signing his name on the note would only stoke the people’s doubts. The proponents of this theory say it was only a matter of time, that even one of Burke’s intellect must someday stumble. To pretend he couldn’t, they claim, denies him the hallmark of humanity and puts any doubter in line with those who turned against him. He might have recovered from the Scandal, they say, were he not a negro.
But others find this account laughable, call the appeal to humanity so much posturing, and counter that in ascribing such foresight to Bloch we rob Burke of any. They grant Bloch his scheme but argue that Burke would have been too clever to play into the fiend’s hands. Noting his erratic behavior in the months leading up to the Scandal, they suggest Burke wanted to retire. Knowing there would be constant demands for his return, that only if he were disgraced would he be left alone, he made perhaps the cleverest move of his career: he walked willingly into Bloch’s trap, understanding all that would happen and seeing in it freedom.
There’s no way of knowing what happened during those three days, how Burke came to be tied up in the barge’s hold, and so we’re forced to choose blindly between the two theories, the choice becoming less about the truth and more about the Burke the chooser prefers. But doesn’t an opportunity lie in the absence of fact? That is why, taking elements of the second theory, I propose a third, one I’ve never shared: after Olivia’s poisoning, forced to decide between her and his career, Burke chose as he should have—he chose love. At Olivia’s bedside in Bad Kreuznach he plotted their retreat from the world, crafting the Scandal—there was no Bloch on the barge, Burke arranged the theft of the rifles himself—not to aid the Turks, but to ensure his fall. Only then would they be left alone to live out their years in peace and contentment, perhaps in the French countryside, perhaps on some Greek isle. There’s no evidence, of course. The decision he made after Bad Kreuznach appears plain, as do its consequences. But as long as we don’t know his end, why not grant him this last happiness? After all, where does history exist, except in our imagination? Does that make it any less true?
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But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.