Museum Curator of Burlington County Marisa Bozarth clued local history buffs in to the life of a real Sherlock Holmes. Ms Bozarth discussed some of the famous and infamous cases of Ellis H. Parker; Burlington County’s first Chief of Detectives. The lecture occurred at the Moorestown Library on January 16, 2019. The Historical Society of Moorestown presented it as part of its New Jersey History Speaks series.
Ellis Parker’s early years gave little indication he’d pursue a career in law enforcement. A proficient fiddler, he’d planned on working as a musician. His pursuit of that endeavor provided an unusual segue to a lifetime of crime fighting.
Needing transportation to a gig, he borrowed his father’s horse and carriage. Following the show, someone absconded with it. It also contained his fiddle. Wanting to retrieve the source of his livelihood, and to avoid his father’s anger, Parker searched for the missing items himself. Upon finding them, he informed the police.
Horse thievery was a common crime in late nineteenth century America. The novice Parker’s ability to solve such a case impressed the officers. They offered him a job.
Thus, in 1891, Parker began work for the Ocean and Burlington Counties Detecting and Pursuing Association. When the organization divided in 1894, he became the first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County. Parker held the post for over forty years. While in that role he solved 288 out of the 300 crimes he investigated.
In a bizarre ironic twist, the legendary crime fighter’s career ended when he became a criminal himself. Chief Parker spent the final days of his life in federal prison. What happened?
Ms. Bozarth described Parker’s technique. He possessed a profound understanding of how to talk to people. He applied a pragmatic approach to his questioning technique. The lone witness to the 1906 murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allison was a little girl. During the interrogation he gave her pieces of candy every time she answered a question.
At times Parker would “weave lies” to get information. He used this tactic when he interrogated George Small and Rufus Johnson during the Allison investigation. During his questioning he told them that each had accused the other of committing the crime. Both men reacted to this by blaming the other one. The information obtained during the interviews provided Parker with enough evidence to convict both men.
Parker possessed strong powers of observation. They aided him in solving the 1911 Firebug Case. A series of barn fires plagued Burlington County. Authorities suspected arson as the motive. Parker determined that the perpetrator’s true goal wasn’t burning, but robbery.
At the scene of one crime he observed that a fence rail had been removed. He also noticed hoof prints leading in opposite directions from where the barn stood. From these inspections he deduced that the criminal brought an old horse to the barn, stole a more robust animal then burned the barn (and his original animal) to cover up the crime.
The Chief’s attention to detail helped solve the David Paul murder case of 1920. Upon its discovery the body was wet. Parker noticed that the water in a nearby creek looked “different.” A lab’s analysis revealed that it contained tannic acid; a by-product from a tannery upstream. That chemical worked as a preservative. From this revelation, Parker determined that the killer committed the crime days before investigators originally believed. From this new information, they apprehended the perpetrator.
Ms. Bozarth portrayed Parker as a bit of a psychiatrist. He also knew how to read emotions. While investigating the murder of seven year-old Moorestonian Matilda Russo he applied this ability brilliantly. The suspect’s wife informed him that the man (Lewis Lively) left on a trip. She didn’t know when he’d return. The woman had also recently cleaned the bedroom floor. All the other rooms in the house appeared “lived in.” From her conduct Parker deduced she knew her husband committed the crime.
Parker received news that Lewis had moved to Canada. The Chief devised a ruse to lure him back to the US. He had Mrs. Lively imprisoned. Almost a century before the term “fake news” entered the American lexicon; Parker planted a false story in newspapers throughout the East Coast. It reported that she had been arrested for the killing. The trick worked. Believing no one suspected him of the murder, Lewis returned to New Jersey. He was arrested and convicted of the crime.
So with such extraordinary success as a law enforcement officer, just how did Parker become a criminal? As one can tell from the cases mentioned, the Chief wasn’t averse to using dubious methods to gain convictions. They crossed into illegal during his investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Ms. Bozarth’s discussion of Parker’s involvement in this case could’ve made for a lecture of its own. In essence, Parker became convinced that Bruno Hauptmann didn’t murder the Lindbergh baby. He believed that a man named Paul Wendel committed the crime. To extract a confession Parker “deputized” three thugs to abduct and torture Wendel until he admitted it.
In American juris prudence’s first application of the “Lindbergh Law”, a jury convicted Parker of kidnapping. The first Chief of Detectives in Burlington County’s history spent the remainder of his life in prison; quite an ignominious end for the Sherlock Holmes of America.
Aristotle once noted: “There is no great genius without a touch of madness.” That observation would aptly apply to Chief Parker. Although a movement to pardon him has existed for some time, his conduct during the Lindbergh investigation raises some serious questions about his methods. Several of Parker’s cases resulted in suspects receiving the death penalty. One has to hope his behavior during the Lindbergh case an aberration.