Chief Desmond Gets a Confession

St. Louis Chief of Detectives William Desmond was known for his ability to gain confessions from criminals.  Unlike other detectives, who would sometimes use physical intimidation, Desmond eschewed the “third degree”.  Chief Desmond believed information obtained by beating suspects was completely unreliable.

Desmond would start a discussion with the suspect.  After putting him or her at ease, Desmond would let the suspect talk freely.  He would let them betray facts that exposed their crimes before asking a series of questions about what they discussed.  Invariably, the suspect would be tripped up by their lies.  Soon they confessed their part in the suspected crime.


Artist rendering of St. Louis Chief of Detectives William Desmond from the Public Domain

On August 16, 1891, St. Louis Police had Fred F. Osborne, a Billings, Montana resident, in prison for attempted fraud.  After a discussion with Chief Desmond, Osborne went back to the Four Courts Building to sit in his cell and think.  Within a few hours, he asked to see Chief Desmond.

Osborne told Chief Desmond that he had recently fallen on hard times.  While he owned a small ranch in Montana, it was so heavily mortgaged, he could not sell it.  Osborne had worked in St. Louis two years earlier with the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Before leaving for Montana, Osborne took several bills of lading.

Osborne forged the bills of lading with the name of the Billings, Montana Station Agent.  Osborne then wrote several Downtown St. Louis wool merchants about selling them $2,000 worth of wool.  Osborne’s inability to answer questions about wool made the merchants suspicious.  St. Louis Police arrested Osborne for attempted fraud.

Osborne begged Chief Desmond to send him back to Billings to be tried for forgery.  In Billings, he would at least be able to see his wife and three children.  Despite the belief that Osborne was working with a gang to defraud the merchants, Chief Desmond contacted the Billings, Montana authorities to see if they would prosecute Osborne for forgery.  Chief Desmond intended to send him back to Montana, if Montana was going to prosecute him.

While Fred Osborne was a small town crook, Chief Desmond would be responsible for the arrest or prosecution of Hole-in-the-Wall Gang member Marion Hedgepeth, serial killer H.H. Holmes and international criminal Eddie Guerin.  “The Sherlock Holmes of St. Louis” left big shoes to fill.

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Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 1891 edition, p. 4

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