Friday, December 2, 2016

America’s Sherlock Holmes – Innovative Forensic Detective Luke May [otd 12/02]

Detective Luke May.
Family Archives.
On December 2nd, Luke S. May, who became known as America’s preeminent scientific detective, was born near Grand Island, Nebraska. Hawley’s History of Idaho and other references list the year as 1886.

The family, however, gives the year as 1892, with support from the Social Security Death Index, as well as the 1900 U. S. Census. This is highly plausible: By adding six years to his age, the youthful detective-to-be could pose as being in his early twenties – still quite young, but not a mere boy.

The family moved to Salt Lake City when May was very young and there he actively pursued his interest in detective work. After intensive study of the available literature, May opened his own detective agency, which did well. Then, in 1914, he and a partner, J. Clark Sellers – later famous in his own right – founded the Revelare International Secret Service.

A year later they moved the company headquarters to Pocatello, Idaho. The biography in Hawley’s History lists a half dozen specific cases – the Breckenridge murder, Lorenzen lava bed mystery, etc. – with no further explanation. This implies that these cases were so notorious that his readers would know all about them.

That was certainly true of the 1916 robbery and murder of Wilbur Breckenridge of New Sweden, a farming village a few miles west of Idaho Falls. May and sheriff’s officers soon identified the perpetrators, and May thoroughly tracked their movements before and after the crime. One suspect – a young man of about 18 or 19 – was finally captured, and soon confessed. The Idaho Register, in Idaho Falls, reported (July 7, 1916), “The evidence secured is conclusive and the boy under arrest denied the charge until the happenings of the past few months were recited to him almost day to day.”

Revelare developed an international reputation, aided by instruments and techniques developed by May himself. Among other advances, he pioneered the use of tool marks to identify and verify physical evidence. Hawley noted that Luke was “an expert in the use of chemicals” and concluded that “His work indeed stands as the last word in detective service in the northwest.”

During World War I, Sellers enlisted in the Army, which disrupted the firm’s work somewhat. In 1919, they added another partner and moved their headquarters to Seattle. The partners soon left to pursue their own careers, but May’s reputation flourished during the next two decades. Newspaper and magazine articles began referring to him as “America’s Sherlock Holmes.”

In the Thirties, he started to write “true crime” articles for a popular detective magazine. He also published a popularized book of case files, as well as two texts on scientific detection.

Evidence object from Luke May Papers.
University of Washington Special Collections.
May felt strongly about the need to apply logic and science to criminal investigation. He thus took every avenue to educate law enforcement officials and ordinary people. He helped found crime laboratories for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Chicago police department, and elsewhere.

During World War II, Naval Reserve officer Lt. Commander Luke May was called to active duty and then promoted to Commander shortly before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (Seattle Daily Times, November 14, 1941). He never discussed what he had done while he was on active duty. However, his service records show that he mostly trained intelligence officers, showing them how to turn field observations into useful information.

After the war, May found himself something of a victim of his own success. Many public law enforcement bodies started their own crime labs, leading to fewer calls for Luke's independent service. Luke passed away in July 1965, after a long battle with leukemia.

“America’s Sherlock Holmes” either directly, or through years of education, helped revolutionize criminal investigation, establishing the basis for much of how this work is done today.
Reference: [Hawley]
J. Beck, “Luke May of Seattle – ‘America's Sherlock Holmes’,” Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 37, No. 1, American Academy of Forensic Sciences (1992) pp 349-355.
Darrell Klasey, “J. Clark Sellers,” The California Identification Digest, Vol. 10, No. 1, California State Division, International Association for Identification, Oakland (2010).
“Luke Silvester May,” Military Personnel Records, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis , Missouri (2003).
Mindi Reid, “May, Luke (1892-1965),” Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,

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