Isaiah Lees and the Tunnel Bandits

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William Pinkerton called him “The greatest criminal catcher the West ever knew.” For decades, he was known as one of the world’s leading detectives, and his portrait hangs in Scotland Yard. He was Isaiah Lees, the greatest detective you never heard of.

The case you are about to read made his reputation:

Portsmouth Square was the center of San Francisco in 1854. Across the square on Kearny Street stood City Hall and the Hall of Justice. Palmer, Cook & Company, The City’s leading bank, stood across the way at 801 Kearny St. And at the opposite corner, where the Hilton now stands, stood the El Dorado Gambling House, the first fancy gambling hall in San Francisco. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and an orchestra played continuously. All classes of San Francisco rubbed shoulders in the El Dorado: prominent business men, gamblers and miners straight from the gold fields.

But beneath the El Dorado one night, a daring criminal gang planned the largest and most audacious heist in San Francisco history.

That night, a young gambler named Clayton Sinclair was bragging to his friend Horace Bell about his $20,000 winnings. Sinclair was determined to break the bank. Then his luck changed dramatically. He lost all of his money and his gold watch.

Sinclair held up his diamond stickpin and offered to sell it. Suddenly, a Chinese man grabbed it and ran out the back door. Bell chased the thief though a card room, a restaurant and down the stairs into a basement kitchen. When Bell entered the basement, he found his path blocked by a group of Chinese men who claimed the thief had escaped.

Police were summoned, and Isaiah Lees, then a patrolman, took charge. Searching the basement, he found 20 Chinese men, a number of large sacks of rice and no sign of the thief. Lees asked the steward why there were so many people in the basement. The steward said the men were his cousins. Suspicious, Lees had the men taken to the station house and started searching the bags of rice.

Lees discovered the bags were full of dirt and saw a tunnel hidden behind two of the bags.

“I know what’s going on!” he said to his fellow policeman. “Rush back to the station and come back with every man you can!”

When the reinforcements arrived, Lees explained, “Last week, as I did my nightly patrol near the Palmer, Cook & Company bank, I heard the distant sounds of digging below me but I couldn’t tell exactly where they were coming from. The digging stopped at daylight, and I’ve been keeping an eye on this street ever since. These men are burglars and have been tunneling toward the bank.”

Lees entered the narrow tunnel and emerged a few minutes later with the thief in hand. The diamond stickpin was hidden in his hair.

When police searched further, they found safe-cracking tools and sophisticated counterfeiting equipment. The gang was one day away from emptying a bank vault containing hundred of thousands of dollars in gold.

The bank job might have worked except for a greedy thief stealing a stickpin. For a dozen men, the next step was prison. For Isaiah Lees, it was the first big step in a legendary career. He pioneered modern police techniques, was San Francisco’s Captain of Detectives for more than 40 years and retired as Chief of Police.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. Drexler will lead a Barbary Coast Tour on Saturday, May 21, at noon. For more information, visit to www.crookstour.com.

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