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The Cornfield Sherlock Holmes
Each week David Paul, a 60-year-old runner for the Broadway Trust Bank in Camden, New Jersey, carried a deposit across the Delaware River to the Girard Trust Company in Philadelphia. On October 5, 1920, satchel bulging with $40,000 in cash and $30,000 in checks, he left Camden as usual, then disappeared. When background inquiries revealed that 25 years earlier Paul had served a jail term for mail theft, cynical detectives believed that he had absconded with the money. To their credit, his employers steadfastly refused to accept this view, insisting that Paul was a reformed character. This was not a view shared by the losing depositors, however, and a reward of $1,000 was posted for Paul's arrest and conviction. (The first reward poster grossly underestimated the amount of cash stolen.)
Eleven days two duck hunters found Paul's body in a shallow grave near Irick's Crossing, in adjoining Burlington County. He had been shot twice and battered about the head. No money was found on his body, but all the checks were in the satchel. The killers had not bothered with trifles: Paul's watch, gold ring, and gold cuff links still lay on the body; also close at hand was a pair of spectacles. Curiously, while the ground around the corpse was dry, Paul's overcoat and clothing were soaking wet. The thick clay soil showed faint traces of automobile tire tracks and a piece of wood, thought to be from the back seat of a car, was found. Witnesses spoke of seeing a yellow runabout with a wooden rear seat in the vicinity several days before.
When Was He Murdered?
When the medical examiner declared that death had occurred not more than 24 hours before the body was discovered, it suggested that either Paul had actually bolted with the money, only to be killed later by accomplices, or he had been kidnapped and kept imprisoned for at least a week before being killed.
Neither theory sounded that compelling to Ellis H. Parker, chief of detectives in Burlington County and one of the nation's top investigators. Parker, who knew Paul, doubted that the bank runner had reverted to a life of crime, and he certainly didn't buy the notion of kidnapping. His opinion weighed heavily on the investigation, because, when it came to nailing bad guys, Parker had a track record second to none. The press lionized him. He had a colorful, larger than life personality, and his fondness for chewing on a gnarled pipe as he pondered problems was enough for the press to dub him the "Cornfield Sherlock Holmes," a soubriquet that he relished. Like the great fictional detective, Parker also played the violin, and always claimed that it was the theft of his fiddle that led him into a life of crime solving. How true this was remains a matter for conjecture; Parker was a world-class self-promoter and knew just how to finesse the facts to ensure the best press coverage. But there was no doubting his detective skills, especially in homicide cases.
Parker Has Doubts
In this instance, Parker couldn't shake the suspicion that the medical examiner had, somehow, miscalculated Paul's time of death. He was particularly intrigued by the wet clothing. The official line had the murderers, unsure whether the gunshots had definitely killed Paul, deciding to make certain by 'drowning' their victim in a nearby stream before burying him. Parker grouched his disagreement and continued looking.
Within a week the spectacles were traced to a neighbor of Paul's, an automobile salesman named Frank James. It transpired that ever since Paul's disappearance, James and another man, Raymond Schuck, had been drinking wildly and splashing large sums of money around. The two men were known to maintain a lakeside hideout called the "Lollypop Bungalow," which was notorious for drunken parties. Schuck, in particular, was known as a playboy – except to his wife – and it was learned that he had recently lavished $480 on a coat for his latest girlfriend. Yet when questioned, both had watertight alibis for the time when the medical examiner estimated the murder had taken place: James had been at a convention in Detroit; Schuck had gone downstate to stay with friends for several days. Parker, always wary of perfect alibis, especially when provided by people whom he believed to be crooked, redoubled his efforts.
Just upstream from where the body was found, lay a number of tanning factories. Parker got to thinking. He ordered that a sample of water from stream be taken away for laboratory analysis. The report came back showing an unusually high percentage of tannic acid, enough to act as a preservative on a human body, so that after a week or so in water it would show hardly any sign of decomposition. Hence the medical examiner's confusion.
It was a triumphant Parker who confronted James and Schuck with this latest finding. James gave it a moment's thought, then admitted everything. Schuck, who tried to pile all of the blame on his partner, did admit to dumping Paul's body under a bridge. They told how, after a mammoth drinking spree they had returned to the bridge, retrieved the body, and buried it, unaware of the alibi that the water had given them. James led detectives to the Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, and the grave of Schuck's mother. He pointed to a spot nearby. A few minutes' digging revealed a bag containing $35,000, all that remained of the cash stolen in the robbery. If James was contrite then Schuck was anything but. He positively reveled in the limelight. When pressmen came to take photographs of him in the jailhouse, he insisted that they wait until he'd shaved, so that he might look his best for them.
The two men were tried separately, but the outcome was the same. Guilty in the first degree. Schuck, still convinced that a retrial would establish his innocence, took his invariable sunny demeanor to the death house; James, far more penitent, admitted his guilt and insisted that he was ready to pay for his crime. And pay they did, on August 30, 1921. Schuck was still beaming as he was strapped into Trenton's electric chair. James, by contrast, collapsed on his final walk and had to be carried the final few yards
Over a career that spanned four decades, Ellis Parker was reputed to have solved 226 murder cases out of 236, combining scientific detection with flashes of intuitive brilliance, all laced with prodigious amounts of obduracy. Some of his boasts test the bounds of credibility to breaking point, for instance his claim to have investigated more than 1,000 cases a year over his 40 year areer, but he was undoubtedly a topnotch investigator – until the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping came along in 1932.
Because the New Jersey kidnapping occurred outside of Parker's jurisdiction he was not directly involved. Nor was he invited to participate. He took the perceved snub personally and lobbied hard behind the scenes. Parker's meddling reached its peak after the convicted kidnapper, Bruno Hauptmann, was sent to death row. This was the trigger for Parker to unleash a rash of outlandish claims. Hauptmann was innocent, he trumpeted; before switching to another story in which the Lindbergh baby hadn't been murdered at all, but instead had been spirited into hiding by some rich degenerate; finally came Parker's boast that he'd arrested the real kidnapper – a disbarred Trenton lawyer named Paul Wendel. The circumstances of Wendel's arrest were murky, to say the least. Originally he'd been hired by Parker to act as conduit to the underworld, only to find himself abducted by a gang of five men, including Parker's son, and then 'disappeared' into jail. There he was tortured repeatedly until signing a 'confession.' The spuriousness of this document soon became apparent and the illustrious Ellis Parker found himself facing a federal charge of kidnapping.
It was a tragic end to a glittering, often controversial career. In 1937 Parker was sentenced to six years imprisonment (his son received half that sentence.) Unlike his fictional counterpart, the "Cornfield Sherlock Holmes" had no dramatic demise on some alpine waterfall; instead, he died, ignominiously, behind bars on February 4, 1940 at age 68.