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August 31, 2010 |  1:21 am

August 1911, McClure's Magazine

Isn’t this a great cover? I love the lettering.

I’m going through the transcripts of jury selection in the McNamara trial, which is dull, tedious,  fascinating work. It’s difficult to convey the experience of having a 1911 typewritten manuscript – old and somewhat fragile -- next to a digitized 1911 magazine displayed on my laptop. Put them side by side and a century disappears, collapsing time in a way that I never expected.

I’m about halfway through the first of four volumes of transcripts and I have  discovered that in questioning prospective jurors, defense attorney Clarence Darrow usually asks whether they have seen the August 1911 issue of McClure’s Magazine. That year, McClure’s published a series of stories about detective William J. Burns, who investigated the explosion, and the story in this issue focused on The Times bombing. So far, only one juror said he was a McClure’s subscriber, but he didn’t like detective stories so he didn’t read the article.   

Harvey J. O’Higgins’ story in McClure’s is straightforward and a pretty good read, although I would have to fact-check it before relying on it very much. Burns gets ample opportunity to brag about himself, but he gives a fairly interesting account of investigating a large number of bombings, culminating  in the McNamara case. These days, Burns is often described as a fairly unsavory character, but at the time this story was published, "Never-Fail Burns"  was often called America’s Sherlock Holmes (though not “pale and penetrating” as Holmes was).

Burns’ 1913 book “The Masked War,” published after the McNamaras were sent to prison, is a bit more sensational. For example, it has a rather suspicious account of bribing a fortune teller in Chicago to feed false information to the wife of Ortie McManigal, one of the figures in the bombing. There’s none of that in the McClure’s article. It’s strictly detective work.  If you like police procedural stories, you’ll enjoy this.

The 1911 issues of McClure’s are here. [Warning: The pdf is 89 megabytes.]