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5 Sleuths who Paved the Way for True Detective

Everett Collection / © HBO / Jim Bridges

These five real-life detectives deserve their own TV shows.

Ever since the first airing of “The Long Bright Dark” — the inaugural episode of HBO’s True Detective — viewers have been captivated by chain-smoking, haunted Detective Rust Cohle (brought to life by Matthew Mcconaughey) and Marty Hart, his deeply flawed yet all-American partner in law enforcement (played by Woody Harrelson). Also bewitching is the backdrop of Louisiana scenery; as the detectives roll down deep-south roads, swampy vistas and decaying homes seem to become living characters in their own right.

The second season has fallen short by many measures, failing to deliver the high tension that initially hooked audiences.

Jonesing for another batch of riveting whodunit storylines? We urge you to tear your eyes from the screen and take a look back in time. Below, we explore the legacies of five real-life sleuths who deserve their own television series.

Allan Pinkerton (1819 – 1884)

Allan PinkertonBefore there was a Federal Bureau of Investigation, there was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. The national network of private eyes was founded and run by America's premier detective, Allan Pinkerton.

After emigrating from Scotland in 1842, Pinkerton became the first detective in Chicago. At the time, Chicago was shaping up to be the nation’s main railroad hub. Pinkerton specialized in solving train robberies and providing security on trains and in rail yards.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, there was no Secret Service to protect him. Instead, the railroad system was tasked with keeping him safe as he traveled from Illinois to Washington D.C., for his inauguration. Pinkerton's agents caught wind of a potential assassination plot that was planned to take place in Baltimore.

Under the cover of night, the team moved President Lincoln's railroad carriage inconspicuously through the city by horses. Once they were safely through Baltimore, Pinkerton sent a cryptic telegram to the railroad's headquarters: "Plums delivered nuts safely." In return for his wily service, he went on to become the head of the Union Intelligence Service during the Civil War.

After the war, it only made sense that he'd return to the railroads he'd worked to protect. He spent his days pursuing train robbers such as the Reno Gang and the James-Younger Gang, and became obsessed with one criminal in particular — Jesse James, an outlaw known for robbing trains and stagecoaches. The pursuit turned violent when several agents and a deputy sheriff were murdered by the gang. A fiery raid on the James family homestead followed, leaving Jesse James' younger half brother dead and his mother severely wounded. Ironically, James was killed in the end by a member of his own crew.

Pinkerton died in 1884 at the age of 64. The agency he left behind still exists and offers investigation and security services to businesses under the name Pinkerton.

Kate Warne (1833 – 1868)

Kate Warne was young — just 23 — when she answered one of Allan Pinkerton's ads for detectives in Chicago. He initially thought she was applying for a clerical job, but Warne, a somewhat mysterious person who claimed to be widowed, was determined to become a detective. She convinced Pinkerton that, as a woman, she could befriend and gain the trust of criminals' wives and girlfriends, gaining entry to situations male detectives couldn't. Pinkerton was won over and hired her as the first female detective in the United States in 1856.

Warne’s name began mutating with each new assignment. She became known to various parties as Kate Waren, Kitty Warne, Kittie Warren ... and the list goes on. Throughout her career she continuously proved her savvy, helping to worm out secrets and capture spies, embezzlers and murderers.

After the Civil War, Pinkerton made Warne the head of his Female Detective Bureau. Sadly, she contracted pneumonia and died in January 1868 at the age of 38. Pinkerton stayed by her until the end and remarked in his memoirs that she was one of the best detectives he ever worked with.


Frank Geyer (1853 – 1918)

True Detective’s Rust Cohle has much in common with Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia gumshoe who worked for the famed Pinkerton detective agency. Both men knew what it was like, for example, to live beneath the invisible cloak of grief: On the show, [***Spoiler alert***] Cohle privately mourns his daughter who was killed while playing in the family driveway. Over a century ago, Geyer lost both his child and wife in a fire.

Following the tragedy, a seemingly normal insurance fraud case came across Geyer’s desk: A suspect named H.H. Holmes was accused of concocting a scheme to fake the death of co-conspirator Benjamin Pitezel, who’d taken out a hefty life insurance policy.

But that’s not how the criminals’ plan had played out. Pitezel’s death wasn't faked at all: In truth, Holmes had killed him to take the insurance money for himself. The Pinkerton agency began pursuing Holmes across the Midwest. After they arrested him in Boston, however, Geyer's first order of business wasn’t retrieving funds: It was finding out what had happened to three of the late Pitezel's children, whom their unsuspecting mother had believed were traveling with Holmes.

Geyer retraced Holmes' footsteps over the previous months and made grisly discoveries in Toronto and Indianapolis. Holmes had murdered the three children. This was bad enough, but as Geyer looked further into Holmes' affairs he made a discovery that sent shockwaves through the nation.

Holmes was the owner of a peculiar hotel during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that was equipped with secret passages and special rooms. Dozens of unsuspecting fairgoers met their end in what the press dubbed the Murder Castle. Geyer had helped capture one of America's most prolific serial killers.

Geyer went on to write a book, "The Holmes-Pitezel Case: a history of the greatest crime of the century and the search for the missing Pitezel children." Recently renewed interest in the case was sparked by Erik Larson's 2003 best-seller, "The Devil in the White City."

Johnny Broderick (1896 – 1966)

Detectives don't come any more hard-boiled than New York City Police Department detective Johnny Broderick. In fact, many of the newspaper stories referencing him in his heyday may have seemed more fit for the comics section than the front page.

Broderick had a reputation for physical toughness and absolute fearlessness. He gained that reputation while fighting anarchists and labor agitators as head of the NYPD Industrial Squad in the 1920s. His fists were once described as "deadly pistons," and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey claimed Broderick was the one man he feared getting into a fight with outside the ring.

In 1926, Broderick and his unit were brought in to help stop an attempted prison break at The Tombs, a Manhattan prison built in the style of an Egyptian mausoleum. As Broderick approached two of the armed convicts in the prison yard, they committed suicide. The dramatic scene cemented his reputation as the most fearsome cop in New York.

Other outrageous stories of his exploits include allegedly throwing notorious gangster Legs Diamond into a trashcan during a street fight. He also threw a group of hoodlums through a plate-glass window, one by one, after seeing them hassling a young woman. Broderick then charged them with malicious destruction of property. When he walked a beat on Broadway he was known to keep a lead pipe rolled up in a newspaper and would give a "friendly swat" to known criminals.

Broderick retired from the police department in 1947. When he died in 1966 department officials distanced themselves from his methods when eulogizing him, but acknowledged that at a time when gangsters didn't fear the law, they feared Johnny Broderick.

Calvin Goddard (1891 – 1955)

It seems no TV show about detectives is complete without a quirky forensic scientist. That’s due in large part to the work of Col. Calvin Goddard.

Goddard worked for the U.S. Army and used rigorous scientific method to legitimize the field of forensic firearm identification. He coined the term "forensic ballistics" and worked with firearms manufacturers to create the most comprehensive ballistics database at the time. Perhaps his greatest achievement was co-developing the comparison microscope.

One of the biggest problems facing forensic scientists was that they could only look at one sample at a time and relied upon their memories to compare identifying markings on a bullet or shell casing. A comparison microscope enabled them to examine two objects simultaneously, allowing for more accurate observations and better analysis.

Although Goddard’s work often took place in tranquil laboratory environs, his accomplishments pushed him into the national spotlight. He became a sought-after expert in high-profile cases like the controversial murder-robbery case of Sacco and Vanzetti. He identified that the bullet that killed security guard Alessandro Berardelli did indeed come from the gun that police claimed to have found in the possession of Nicola Sacco. Expert witnesses for the defense agreed with his findings.

Goddard also worked on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre case in which men wearing police uniforms gunned down seven Chicago mobsters. He analyzed the ballistic evidence and compared it to the machine guns used by the Chicago police at the time and could find no matches. A raid on the home of one of Al Capone's henchmen turned up new weapons, which Goddard was able to link conclusively to the crime.

In the wake of these successes, he helped set up the FBI's first national crime lab to test ballistics, fingerprints, blood samples and other trace evidence.

Co-written by John Maxwell and Halley Burns