William Desmond Passes Away
On Tuesday, July 4, 1916, former St. Louis Chief of Detectives William Desmond passed away after an illness of two years. Desmond was in Alexian Brothers Hospital from October 1915 until his death on Independence Day 1916. The 59-year-old Desmond left a 12-year-old son, William Desmond, Jr. Chief Desmond’s wife died several years before him.
For 17 years from 1890 to 1907, William Desmond led the St. Louis Detective’s Bureau during one of it’s most successful eras before and after the 1904 World’s Fair. Desmond’s men were largely responsible for policing the World’s Fair.
Desmond was born on May 10, 1857 to William and Elizabeth Desmond in Massachusettes. While he was still a child, the family moved to St. Louis. The Desmonds purchased 1710 O’Fallon Street, where Desmond lived for much of his early career.
While still a detective, Desmond was known for his fighting ability. One winter night, Desmond attempted to arrest a man on the ice-covered streets at Third and Christy Streets. After a lenghty battle, Desmond and his prisoner staggered into the Third District Station. Half frozen and showing the damage from their battle, the man said he wanted no more of the battered but triumphant Desmond.
Criminals may fear a tussle with Billy Desmond but it was his mind, which made him truly dangerous to the criminal element. Chief Desmond’s real skill was “sweating” suspects. Unlike the third degree or physical abuse in practice at the time, Desmond gained confessions through clever questioning and understanding the criminal mind.
Desmond would first suggest a reason like self-defense for the crime. As the suspect began to open up about the crime, Desmond would then show him or her that self-defense really wasn’t possible but would provide another reason for the criminal’s actions. The criminal would continue to confess important facts. By the end of the interview, Desmond normally had a full account of the crime and a confession.
Chief Desmond left the force in 1907 but felt the Stewart Police Board forced him out for political reasons. Desmond was bitter over how his retirement occurred. He would carry this bitterness until his death from pneumonia on July 4, 1916. From 1907 until 1915, Chief Desmond operated a private detective agency with one of his former assistants, John Keely.
The funeral procession began at his home, 4290 Page Boulevard, and ended at St. Ann Catholic Church. Miss Maria Desmond, who lived with her brother and his son, would continue to take care of her nephew after her brother’s death.
Chief Desmond’s death closed for good the career of the greatest thief taker in St. Louis Police history. Chief Desmond would be a tough act to follow.
Source: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 5, 1916 edition, p. 4 and Missouri Death Certificate Database