“Burglar and Butler Battle in the Dark,” read the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Young Frank Miller Proves his Courage,” read the subhead.
Miller, the 20-year-old butler of wealthy Julius Franklin, of 2930 California St., was awakened by basement noises in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, 1896. Upon investigating, he found himself face to face with three armed burglars.
Two of the men went upstairs, leaving the third to guard Frank. “I noticed that while he had the gun at my face, he was very nervous and his hand was trembling,” Miller told police later. “I suddenly grabbed him by the wrist, and he wrestled with me.” A ferocious battle ensued, and several shots were fired. Though Miller was slightly wounded in the neck, he managed to draw his own gun and shoot the burglar in the head.
Police examined the dying burglar. His face was dirty, and his hair was matted and unkempt. There were two bullet holes in his head. Miller was lying next to him, barely conscious. Doctors attending Miller found him shaking almost uncontrollably and sedated him. His grateful boss installed Miller in an upstairs bedroom while he recovered and announced that Miller would receive a $250 bonus.
Captain of Detectives Isaiah Lees arrived. Franklin praised his butler’s pluck and mentioned that Miller had prevented a burglary the previous year. Police canvassed the area in search of traces of the other gang members. They found nothing except some shabby clothes wrapped in a newspaper.
Lees began his investigation. He noted that the gas had been turned off and that the electric, telephone and burglar alarm wires had been cut. It appeared that the wires were cut by someone familiar with the house. Extensive work had been done over the previous year, and many workmen had been in and out of the house — so there was a wide range of possible suspects.
Lees examined the butler’s room and noticed insects crawling in Miller’s bed. He sent a detective to the morgue, who found the same insects on the body of the burglar. Lees carefully went through a stack of newspapers in the room, selected one and told his assistant to label it “Exhibit A.” Lees brusquely questioned Miller and seemed dissatisfied with his responses, but further questioning was delayed until Miller recovered.
The burglar’s tattoos suggested he had been a sailor. The Franklins’ cook had told detectives that the burglar strongly resembled a man who had been lurking around the house during the previous week. Hundreds of people visited the morgue in the next few days, but none of the names people suggested panned out. Detectives reached out to their criminal contacts but remained unable to identify the dead man or his crime partners.
On Feb. 19, 1896, Lees announced, “I’m satisfied that the man is not one of the burglar class. The burglars who would conceive the details of such a daring crime are not of the class of this man. I believe that he was a tramp picked up for the occasion.”
At the coroners inquest on Feb. 27, Lees introduced a surprise witness, a tramp named “Dakota Slim.” Slim identified Miller as the man who approached him on Feb. 11 and offered him money and a new suit. He was told to come to an address on California Street and carry a package away from the house. Slim’s friends convinced him not to go. Slim produced a scrap of paper upon which Miller had written the address. The handwriting on the paper appeared similar to samples of Miller’s handwriting.
Lees then introduced “Exhibit A” — a newspaper with four pages missing. The missing pages had been used to wrap the discarded clothes found by police. Lees explained that the shabby clothes belonged to the dead man. According to Lees, Miller lured a tramp to the house, gave him clean clothes and let him sleep in his bed. While the tramp was sleeping, Miller wrapped up his old clothes and discarded them in the street. Miller also cut the wires to the house. In the morning, Miller killed the tramp and faked the robbery. Miller’s slight wounds were self-inflicted. Miller’s motive was to play the hero in order to win favor with Franklin, his employer.
Julius Franklin was outraged at Lee’s accusations. “I will defend Miller with my life. What encouragement is it for a man to defend his master’s property if he is to be accused for doing so?” Three doctors testified that Miller suffered from “nervous hysteria” and could not have faked the crime.
The coroner’s jury decided that Miller had killed the man in self-defense and voted him “not guilty.” Angry at the verdict, Lees swore to continue his investigation. Six weeks later, after Lees discovered that Miller had been using a false identity, Franklin discharged him. Miller, now in disgrace, fled The City. Miller was arrested a few months later for abduction and sentenced to five years.
The dead man was later identified as Billy Murray, a homeless man from Montana.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.