Luke May, known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, was a pioneering “scientific detective” who moved to Seattle in 1919. He was an independent private consulting detective whose work represented a radical departure from standard practice. He early utilized and advocated forensic specialties (in questioned-document work, fingerprints, and firearms I.D.) and scientific method as an essential part of crime investigation. Bringing the “Sherlock Holmes”-style fusion of investigation and physical evidence examination out of a fictional setting into real-world practice, May’s agency provided laboratory services to the police and to government agencies long before such bodies possessed their own labs. During his heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, May invented key instruments for use in crime detection, became a regular contributor to the magazine True Detective Mysteries, which he used as part of his vigorous, lifelong public education campaign, and himself became a regular feature in newspaper reports as he helped to solve crime after crime. Today’s crime investigation techniques, including the proper handling of physical evidence, are indebted to Luke May. Note: The author of this biography, Mindi Reid, is Luke May's granddaughter.
Justice Not Blind
In 1964, the Pacific Northwest Security Association presented the following words in gilt printed on parchment to Seattle’s Luke May:
Some seek truth for convenience;
some for recognition; few have
sought it so diligently
for so many years to prove equally
innocence or guilt, as has Luke S. May:
in recognition of your efforts to show
that justice is not blind.
They still serve as an admirable summation of May’s philosophy and career focus. He had come a long, remarkable road in a legendary American tradition: that of the “self-made man” who rises from simple beginnings to effect important change in the larger world. As he hung the framed words of praise on a wall at his last Seattle residence -- a home he and his Dawson City-born wife Helen shared in the Wedgwood district of Seattle -- he no doubt smiled his characteristic smile … tight-lipped and wry. Slender, stooped and famously bald (save for a surviving monkish ring of white hair), whatever regrets he may have felt at being “last of a breed” (the independent “scientific detective”), the words confirmed that he had achieved what he had set out to, and with distinction: revolutionizing attitudes and approaches to the war against crime. They were also timely words. A year later, “Seattle’s Sherlock Holmes” was dead.
Luke S. May was born in Hall County, Nebraska. Most biographical accounts give the year as 1886, but the Social Security Death Index gives the undoubtedly accurate date of birth as December 2, 1892. According to his daughter Patricia, May realized that his extreme youth (he began his career well before the age of 20) would prevent law enforcement professionals from taking him seriously, and made the practical decision to represent himself as older than he was ... perhaps an amusingly ironic start to a career devoted to the service of truth and lawful behavior.
Child of immigrant parents (mother Mary was a German-speaking native of Luxembourg, father William thought to be Anglo-Irish), he was raised to be self-sufficient … able to put wild game on the table or build a sturdy roof over his own head. This drive for self-sufficiency proved unconfined to the sphere of frontier survival skills: the precocious young May exhibited a voracious appetite for more rarified knowledge, and even as a grade-schooler was seeking out works related to such topics as psychology and … criminology. While it is thought his fascination with the latter began with the detective tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, he had soon moved from adventure-fiction into demanding fact. By his teens he was so intent on absorbing everything about the investigative sciences that he prevailed upon a German-speaking friend to translate into English for his own use the work of Prague’s Hans Gross (who had intrigued Freud with his writings on criminal psychology).
By this time the May family had relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, where for a while May participated in his father’s house-building/carpentry business, “May and Son.”
A Very Young Detective
In Utah he took his first steps into the actual world of criminal investigation, cultivating contacts with local police and court personnel, learning procedure. At 16 he became involved in his first murder investigation; at 17 he had begun work as a private detective, in short course opening his own agency. The “Maylon Detective Service” survived for a number of years, with May as its “President and Chief.”
Nineteen fourteen (when his actual if not stated age was 22) was a landmark year in the evolution of Luke May, scientific detective, for it saw both the founding of his “Revelare International Secret Service” and the beginning of his association with another luminary in early forensic work: J. Clark Sellers, who became well known in the field of handwriting and questioned-documents examination. With these developments, it is possible May realized that the scope of their work in the Northwest required a more central location, and in 1915 “Revelare” moved to Pocatello, Idaho.
World War I briefly disrupted May’s activities, but after military service, he and Sellers were joined by John L. Harris in the agency. Their endeavors resumed and accelerated.
May authority Jan Beck, a Seattle forensic document examiner, points out that detective agencies as such were commonplace by this time, but that May and his colleagues represented something unique: early emphasis on forensic specialties (questioned-document work, fingerprints and firearms I.D.) and scientific method as an essential part of crime investigation. May’s agency provided laboratory services to the police and to government agencies long before such bodies possessed their own labs. Beck feels it is not overstatement to assert Luke May’s “Revelare” was “unique in the history of scientific detection,” for May’s pioneering work as an advocate of such an approach (and the need for teaching its techniques to the current and next generation of law enforcers) dramatically impacted the future of the profession. The methodical forensic practices that today thrill the popular imagination (as depicted in such programs as “The New Detectives” and “Cold Case Files”) had their beginnings in the innovative efforts of criminalists like Luke May.
The “Revelare” agency took on cases that ranged from cattle-rustling to murder. May himself had colorful adventures in the field -- such as, in 1916, chasing the notorious “Coyote Bill” through an Idaho landscape that would become “Craters of the Moon National Monument.” (This case would later entertain readers of True Detective Mysteries magazine when May recounted it for popular consumption in 1932. The photographic illustrations are pure “Wild West.”) But the frontier flavor of “shoot-‘em-outs” and the like were dramatically counterbalanced by the futuristic, as May worked feverishly on inventions whose modern forms still play a major role in investigations, such as “bugging” and other surveillance devices.
“Sherlock” Comes to Seattle
The year 1919 marked a turning point in Luke May’s life; it was the year he relocated to Seattle, the city that would remain his home and base of professional operations until his death some four decades later. He arrived at a time when the region and country were in a state of post-war unrest, and labor issues were seething. The United States' first general strike took place in Seattle, and May’s first case in Washington was the infamous “Centralia Massacre” -- a violent altercation that occurred that year in Centralia, Washington, between members of the American Legion and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It is unfortunate perhaps that the Centralia Massacre was his launching case, as his investigation on behalf of anti-labor elements has caused some historians to view him as a “tool of the Establishment.” In reality, May was ruthlessly devoted to impartial analysis of evidence, and not everyone who hired him through the years could be certain his work would support their desired outcome.
May’s association with Sellers and Harris came to an end as they left to pursue their own careers outside Washington state. But his own star was rising. The 1920s and 1930s were to be the heyday of Luke May, as his talent for business and self-promotion (coupled with the press’s delight in covering his exciting feats of detection), educational strategies, and inventions multiplied.
One important invention was the mammoth "Revelarescope," or comparison magnascope, which debuted in 1922. This giant microscope featured two lenses that "projected a split image on a ground glass screen" (J. Beck). Separate objects or documents could thus be compared on independently focused stages to determine whether their markings/details matched.
May’s caseload became ever more colorful and challenging … something that would lead to a long (if slightly uneasy) association with the popular true crime magazine, True Detective Mysteries, an affiliation May manipulated to serve his serious interest in public education.
For many years May served as President of the Northwest Association of Sheriffs and Police, an organization that included Canadian officials. (May was instrumental in the founding of the RCMP’s crime laboratory: In 1931, the RCMP Commissioner found May’s response the most compelling when assistance was requested from various agencies for this purpose.) The Northwest Association of Sheriffs and Police sponsored the creation of a Northwest College of Criminology, which in turn became the Institute of Scientific Criminology. Third year students had the privilege of studying directly under May at his Scientific Detective Laboratories (his agency’s new name). Also in 1931, May served on the commission for establishment of the Oregon State Police, a fact still noted on their Website today (2003).
May’s outstanding pet invention, the “Revelarescope” (a historic artifact whose last known location was in storage at a Seattle auction house in the 1960s) gained fame when its unique split-image projecting abilities were used to investigate a child abduction case in Roy, Washington. The examination of knife cuttings in pieces of pine needle resulted in a landmark decision regarding tool-mark I.D. -- setting a precedent that some believe influenced the outcome of the Lindbergh/Bruno Hauptmann trial. In 1928, Luke May filed his patent for the improved version of this remarkable “magnascope.”
Perhaps the most significant acknowledgement Luke May’s reputation received came when he was singled out for his knowledge and expertise for invitation to Chicago, as that city sought to found the first national crime laboratory of European type -- something desperately needed in the wake of the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (a mass slaughter of rival gangsters by associates of Al Capone).
Marriage and Family
On the personal level, May’s life was changing as well. After two unsuccessful marriages, he found a life partner in his own secretary, Helen Ione Klog, formerly of Ruby, Alaska. Raised in a dirt-floor cabin at the end of the Gold Rush, daughter of immigrant Scandinavians, Helen Klog (pronounced “Kloe”) was as “self-made” as her new husband. She had fashioned an elegant and cultured persona despite a limited formal education. Her grace and exacting taste assured the May households would be suitable environs for glamorous parties as May himself rose in visibility and social standing.
Their union produced one daughter, Patricia Helen, in 1933, whose birth announcement made the front page of the Seattle Star. Becoming a father was a great joy to May, but it brought anxieties. For the duration of her childhood, “Pati’s” father would sleep with a revolver under his pillow, as threats of kidnapping and/or child-murder came to his ears from associates of felons his work had served to “put away.”
Nineteen thirty-three also saw the publication of May’s Scientific Murder Investigation, and Field Manual of Detective Science. Throughout this period, while May was managing his criminology training school, he was also an active instructor connected with law faculties of the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, and Willamette University.
An Enthralled National Audience
In the early 1930s, May was contacted by True Detective Mysteries, and soon some of his cases were finding an enthralled nationwide audience through this popular culture venue … magazines known for their vintage “lurid” covers highly sought after by collectors today. (Some of the prize copies actually bear bright regional promotion stickers alerting Seattle readers to Luke May content!)
From elaborately detailed but sporadic case articles written in contentious collaboration with True Detective Mysteries writers, May eased into a form more congenial to his taste: a monthly Question & Answer column. Here the public could pick May’s capacious brains regarding techniques of investigation and receive patient, exacting responses. The True Detective Mysteries association lasted until the eve of World War II. (Some of May’s cases served as popular entertainment after another fashion when they were dramatized for the famous “Gangbusters” radio broadcasts.)
In 1936, May’s explication of the scientific approach to crime detection reached its biggest audience ever, with the MacMillan Company publication of the case collection Crime’s Nemesis. Written in language accessible to the non-professional crime-detection enthusiast, Crime’s Nemesis boasted an eye-catching Art Deco-striped dust-jacket. In its 21 chapters, May demystified his use of science in detection, chronicling how he unraveled such uniquely bizarre crimes as “Murder by the Heavens,” in which a wheelchair-bound astrologer arranged the murder of his sister-in-law by her own stepchildren. Hairs, fibers, fingerprints, ballistic evidence … the place of all in crime-solving were clarified through the retelling of colorful and dramatic cases. May’s intense desire to edify the public (and intimidate potential criminals) makes his vintage forensic accounts compelling fare still.
The years passed and respect for May’s achievements as a “scientific detective” and educator of law enforcement personnel took on a legendary patina, the sobriquet “America’s Sherlock Holmes” (originally coined to describe fictional detective “Craig Kennedy”) invariably coupled with his name in accounts of his exploits. But the career and its peripheral demands generated considerable strain. Aside from the continuing threat of harm to his family, there was constant domestic stress. Keeping up the social end of things -- running a four-story mansion on Capitol Hill, entertaining Navy Brass and other important members of society -- took its toll on wife Helen, who fought a never-quite-victorious battle with depression and mourned her lost Alaskan life.
May was an intense and somewhat taciturn man, depicted as only a "thinking machine" by some; in truth he had a wry sense of humor: When quizzed relentlessly by his five-year-old granddaughter (this writer) as to why he was bald, he insisted he'd "stood outdoors one day in a high wind." Although he had left the Catholic Church of his childhood, he remained a quietly kind and religious man. He loved to watch wrestling and ballet on television (the latter because he thought it hilarious -- much to the disgust of his wife and daughter), had a sportsman's love of horses, dogs, and wildlife, and left the stress of life behind by boating on Puget Sound, as a longtime member of the Seattle Yacht Club.
Real estate was an obsession. He bought up prime land in many parts of Puget Sound, but never saw the benefit of it, as his wife felt property a "burden" and pressured him to relinquish most of it over time … including his beloved refuge in Port Madison Bay -- "Treasure Island," where he built all the rustic furniture for a family cabin.
The War Years
World War II changed the life of Luke May forever. A Lt. Commander in the Naval Reserve, May “disappeared” into intelligence work immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. To this day, the family does not know where he went, nor what he did … aside from return a full Commander. But stories remain of the high-level Japanese spy who masqueraded as a gardener at the May’s Seattle home, and then left just before war with Japan broke out…
The very work that Luke May labored long hard years to teach to law enforcement bodies served in the end to make him “last of a breed”… the independent consulting detective no longer having a role in a landscape of police and other “official” crime labs. Few cases came his his way in his later years, save for those involving forgery and the like. Nevertheless, his unique intelligence and wisdom preserved a place for him in the respect and admiration of Seattle and the country.
Luke May's Legacy
Leukemia claimed Luke May’s life on July 11, 1965, following a long ordeal. He had lived to witness the beginning of a science that would revolutionize his field -- seeing with his own eyes huge models of the molecular structure of DNA on display at the Seattle World’s Fair. He was certainly aware of the changes wrought by the “nuclear, electronic age of automation” (a phrase he employed in a short statement the Seattle Public Schools requested he write for an intro to their “We Teach Handwriting” handbook). Perhaps he took comfort in envisioning new scientific techniques that would evolve to address the endless war against crime.
Little by little knowledge of the life and career of Luke Sylvester May is resurfacing … jigsaw puzzle bits of reference coming together like clues in one of his own cases. From mention of his high-profile “True Detective” era exploits in the pages of an immense coffee-table book about the ill-fated Art Deco motor-ferry Kalakala (May and associate crime-fighters traveled on the boat to and from the site of the notorious “Bremerton Massacre”) to a small display of May memorabilia in the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum; from Internet inclusion of him in a giant “Sherlock Holmes” database to a plaque at Issaquah’s famed “Boehm’s Candies.” (Here the last relic of his youthful hunting adventures -- a mule deer head -- is mounted in a lighted turret. May abandoned the sport in his elder years, unable to take pleasure in killing, but the taxidermed trophy was always respectfully preserved and has recently found this new home.)
May’s name and colorful legacy of “scientific detection” are drawing attention once again. The “rainy city” can take pride anew in having had its very own “Sherlock Holmes.”