Meet Buffalo Police Detective Sergeant William E. Burns

By Jack Meddoff
Deborah Kufel - Typist
His hair is white and like silk; his face is as mild as his manner; his blue eyes sparkle with life behind glasses.  He looks more like a bank clerk than a veteran policeman even though he has been on the force since Dec. 31, 1900, and seems capable of continuing for more than 40 years.


He has patrolled the waterfront when the "boys" didn't know how to debate verbally and settled their differences with fists.  


He was a bicycle policeman during the Pan-American; he has "cracked" famous cases like "The Clue of the Green Hat" 35 years ago, the "Ether Burglar" enigma in 1910, the "Payroll Bandit" gang in 1928 and the "Hooded Mob" in 1935.


But he'll probably never again run into as fantastic a criminal chase as the one that cut a trail all the way to Mexico and finally ended with the electrocution of three Blue Ribbon gangsters for the murder of Ferdinand Fechter.


"It isn't easy to get Bill Burns to talk about his police experiences.  The passing years have mellowed him to a point of self-effacingmodesty that makes it embarrassing to try to get him to talk about himself.


You sort of have to get "tips" from associates on what to ask him and then be satisfied with the fragments he hands out.


When he became a  cop in 1900, Bill Burns got the waterfront beat where the warehouse district

prevailed-bounded by Miami, Chicago and Ohio Streets.


His particular sector was the "Flatiron District" where gangs used to hang out and where fist-fights and rough-and-tumble battles came as regularly as mealtimes.

"Yes, I got into a few of those battles but nothing much to talk about," said Mr. Burns laconically


It was back in 1901 that he became a bicycle cop and a team that became famous and continued for 15 years was born-the team of Bill Burns and Fred Morganstern.


One of their first jobs as bicycle cops was to break traffic in, at what is now Civic Center, to go right around the circle.  One of the autos of that day came down Delaware Avenue, turned left and killed two persons.


An ordinance was passed requiring a right turn at all circles, and Burns and Morganstern were posted at the death spot for a month, training and making drivers go to the right.


One gentleman in a Mercedes didn't like to be told which way to turn

and insisted on going the other way, Mr. Burns recalled today, so he was arrested and taken to Municipal Court. He got a $10 fine and $1.50 costs and fought the case to the Appellate Division but got beat, and since then folks have been turning to the right at Delaware Avenue and the monument without any quibbling," the veteran officer remarked.



It was on April 1, 1905, that Mr. Burns got out of the "Bloody Eighth" where, incidentally, he ran into no

untoward incidents.  


He was made an acting detective and sent to old No.3, then in Pearl Street at Chippewa.


While there he "cracked" the case that became known as the "Clue of the Green Hat."


"Three was a fellow named James O'Connor, known as "The Gorilla," Mr. Burns reminisced. "This was back
in 1906 or 1907. We didn't know who he was at the time that he terrorized the whole town by breaking in on
prominent women retiring for the night, attacking them and then robbing them.


"He pulled 74 of those jobs without leaving a trace as to his identity and the whole force was in an uproar.


One night we got a hurry call about a rumpus in a place in back of the Touraine Hotel.  When my partner and I

got there, all we found as a trace of the attacker-it was the same fellow as had pulled those other 73 jobs-was

a green hat.


"Then a few days later, as I was standing in front of the station, a woman with a bloody face came up to me

and said she couldn't stand her husband's beatings any longer.  She told me that her husband was the attacker we had been searching for.


"I told her to go home and say nothing. Fred and I followed. We waited around until we saw him enter the house. Then we peeped in and saw him lying fully clothed on the bed with a .45 beside him.

"We crashed in and I made a leap and landed on him, with Fred landing on me. The bed collapsed and we all went to the floor but we had stopped him getting the gun. 


Later he was adjudged insane and sent to Gowanda.  


A week after he was committed I walked into a saloon and there he stood, at the bar; he had escaped. I took him in again and he was returned to Gowanda.


"He escaped again and the next we heard he was pulling the attacking and robbery stuff in Canada, around the
Thorold section.


Then we heard he was caught and sentenced to 20 years in Kingston Prison. On the way he slugged his guard and escaped and to this day I have never heard another word about him."


Along in 1910, shortly after  being appointed full-fledged detectives Burns and Morganstern were standing in a

doorway in Genesee Street about  2 o'clock one morning, wondering how to get their hands on the "Ether

Burglar," a fastidious gent who had looted 35 homes by holding an ether-soaked handkerchief over the faces of

the sleeping occupants to make certain they would not awaken and interfere.


"A young, well-dressed chap came along and we paid no attention to him until he turned a corner, then came

back and sort of looked around as if to see if he was being followed. That made us suspicious and we gum-shoed after him.


He led us to his room and when we broke in and looked around, we found all the burglary equipment he had been using about $9000 worth of jewelry he had collected from his victims." 


The only time Mr. Burns ever killed a man was in 1916-the year, incidentally, in which the team of Burns and Morganstern was broken up by higher-ups at headquarters.  


The man he killed was known as the "Little Matze."


"There was a gang running around town in a car holding up gas stations and stores and every place where they might get money,"


Mr. Burns said. I was in charge of the gangster squad for the 11th and 12th precincts. We just couldn't get a 'break' that would help us to capture this gang that was raising the dickens around town."


Then, one day, a fellow came up to me. I knew him as 'Darky' but his right name was Walter Cymny. His face
was a mess; he had been badly beaten. 


He said: "You're looking for the guys what's doing all these holdups and I know where you can find 'em; they did this to me and they ain't getting away with it."


"He told me where there was a big wedding party attended by the gang we wanted to get. I went there. I looked in, saw them dancing around, about 20 couples, with the men in shirt-sleeves and gats sticking out of their hip pockets.


"I went in and grabbed the two I wanted-'Little Matze'and a chap known as 'Jack Rabbit,' right name, Lawrence


I had quite a time with them; three was a free-for-all and I got kind of mussed up.  'Little Matze' broke loose from me and pulled his gun.  He was a bum shot; he fired six bullets and not one hit me.


"By that time I was able to get my own gun out and shot him twice.


Some of hi pals grabbed him and ran out. They left him in front of a saloon where Johnny Reville later found him. 


He was taken to Emergency Hospital where just before he died, he confessed a lot of things.


We got 'Jack Rabbit' and the others in the gang-Frank Lubeciki, alias Bullock; Frank Shultz, known as 'Sharpshooter'-and they went to prison for long stretches.

Mr. Burns became a detective-sergeant in 1918 and the first he knew of it was when he read it in a newspaper
while in Cleveland on police business.


A bit of sleuthing by Mr. Burns in 1928 led to the arrest of a holdup mob that ultimately confessed to more than 65 stick-ups in Buffalo.


One of the victims of the mob was a storekeeper in vicinity of the former Donner Steel Company, now Republic Steel. He used to cash steel workers' checks and the loot of the gang that robbed him included some of the checks.

Mr. Burns discovered that two of the checks were used in the purchase of an automobile in San Francisco.


From police there Mr. Burns got the name of the purchaser and the license plate numbers."


One day near Shelton Square I saw a car with California plates and there was my man," he recalled. "I jumped on the running board, discovered that the fellow  behind the wheel was a criminal with a record and the rest was easy."In 1935 the "Hooded Mob" made its appearance.


Two men, one wearing a hood with two eye-holes and the other wearing a muffler over his face, would hold up a store and then escape in a waiting car driven by a woman beside whom invariably sat a poodle dog.


"They got away with about 35 jobs before we finally caught up to where their hang-out was and when we crashed in, we found a number of phony auto license plates, the hood, muffler, loaded guns and plenty of loot."


"The woman in the gang was a tough one; she and the leader had met in San Francisco, had done time in San Quentin and , on being released, had headed East. 

They settled down in Buffalo and got away with 35 jobs but the 36th didn't turn out so good for them. They went to prison.  And two men who had been arrested for an Amherst street store holdup and who protested their innocence were proved innocent by the confession of the "Hooded Mob" gang. 


"At this point Mr. Burns began to realize that he had been reminiscing quite a bit.


"That'll be enough," he said.  "You'll have me going on like this for hours.  With all the different types of jobs I've
been identified with, though, the one I like best is the one I have now and the one I have had through most of my career with some exceptions-watching out for 'con' men and pickpockets."


And, as a matter of fact and also as a matter of record, Bill Burns probably has caught as many and caused the
arrest of as many pick pockets and "con" men as any cop on any force in any city in the country of a size
comparable to Buffalo.


Copyright 2002-2009 All Rights Reserved.