Childhood Memories of Criminologist Luke May, by his Granddaughter

  • By Mindi Reid
  • Posted 11/09/2003
  • Essay 4258
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In this People's History file, Mindi Reid, granddaughter of the renowned Seattle criminologist Luke S. May (1892-1965), recalls him as a beloved grandfather. Luke May, known as America's Sherlock Holmes, was a pioneering forensic detective. He moved to Seattle in 1919. Reid's account is excerpted from a longer version.

Light Through a Prism: Childhood Memories

For some reason I was wakeful that night, although having been tucked into bed at the usual early hour, so I can clearly recall the loud, hollow ringing of the phone when that particular call came in. Past the time for welcome social calls, even the 7-year-old I was at the time felt an anxious chill, already certain of the call's import. My mother's voice was low in the hallway, and my childish ears strained to catch her words. What they were I can no longer access, but I can still feel the strange mix of excitement and emptiness that filled me upon learning my grandfather was dead.

Luke Sylvester May, my "Grampa," was a famous criminologist -- though along with those of many peers his achievements were largely forgotten by the time of his death, submerged beneath the advancements and technologies of the vaunted "space age." While he was still alive, I had a dim awareness of him as a "scientist," without much sense of the "crime" his particular discipline sought to thwart. To me he was a source of fascinating stories, but stories concerning how water traveled through the veins of a leaf, or the nobility of bald eagles, or how light was really color that a piece of angle-cut German glass could separate out into individual shades, like the Crayola tints in my crayon box. To me he was walks along the pebbly beach near glistening tide pools at Golden Gardens on Puget Sound, and yet more walks through tall timber in now vanished Henry Osborn State Park near Redmond, Washington. He was supplier of my very first books -- a board book of animals (how I loved the otter!) illustrated by Garth Williams, and a large illustrated child's version of Marguerite Henry's Misty -- which added the euphonious "Chincoteague" to my 5-year-old vocabulary.

I grew up thinking it was the most normal thing in the world to have a laboratory in the basement -- an essential element of "Grampa-ness" a grandchild was entitled to. While I wouldn't understand for many, many years the sadly truncated, almost refugee-status of his last lab, to me it was a wonderland of glass cabinets, beautiful wooden boxes housing scientific marvels (new to me, but mostly archaic, even quaint, by the standards of the time) -- microscopes, lenses, measuring tools, delicate prepared glass slides with copperplate labels; and huge metallic contraptions with imposing names like "Comparison Magnascope." It was my first classroom -- though I didn't know it -- far more exhilarating than the kindergarten one of naps-and-soda-crackers, or first grade's atmosphere of "Dick and Jane" in all their WASP monotony.

Almost every Sunday of my young life meant a journey across Lake Washington from Newport Hills to my grandparents' last home in the Wedgwood District of Seattle. They were ritual Sundays, family times of sharing in the American popular culture of the day: as I recall, we always watched Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom (Marlin Perkin's folksy monologues augmented by my grandfather's own huge fund of nature lore), and the Wonderful World of Color (which we watched in black-and-white, hosted by the still-living founder of the animation empire). The adults would later watch programs that only partially held my attention Bonanza, Ed Sullivan, and the like. While television had its charms, my thoughts were always drawn back to the magic realm in the basement -- to the giant cameras, equally giant press scrapbooks, and the tall wooden stool that was my special perch for microscope sessions.

Grampa taught me how to clip a delicate glass slide into place for viewing, although he was watchful of my interactions with the valuable precision German microscopes that were in some respects the totems of his life. Rather more to my scale was a small lens with a heavy metal base and adjustable neck -- a tiny instrument of scrutiny that I had fallen madly, covetously in love with by the age of three.

There came a Sunday when I flew down the dangerously steep stairs to the beloved basement and hoisted myself up onto the leggy lab stool in anticipation of making use of my favorite lens -- in hand, no doubt, a "specimen" from the garden -- a rock, or a leaf, or some small dead bug. When I reached across to the spot where the small wood box with its tiny hooked lid-latch was normally stationed, I was brought up with a start -- for "my" lens wasn't there.

I must have let out a squawk of distress; from behind me came my grandfather's quietly resonant voice: "Well, now, Mindi, I'm afraid I have something rather sad to tell you. You see, we had a burglary the other night, and I'm afraid the burglar got away with that magnifier. Seems he knew just what to look for. And I haven't been able to catch him -- just too smart a fellow, I guess." I was too young to sense the wry humor behind the poker-faced solemnity of my grandfather's expression, or to interpret the twinkle in his eyes -- or to see the illogic of a burglary in which the culprit ignored important articles of considerable worth in favor of one minor lens. I was crushed, devastated.

Grampa did his best in the ensuing weeks to distract me from this terrible loss with other laboratory curiosities, but my sense of outrage at "The Burglar" would survive until the afternoon of my fourth birthday party. It was one of the fancier birthday parties of my young life, complete with professional photographic services donated by a neighbor, Mr. Simpkins. The immediacy of the photos taken that day preserves the sense of it for me, giving a boost to the actual memories; my grandmother and grandfather arrived, the latter painfully thin (his leukemia not yet diagnosed, but its inroads visible) but impeccably dressed in a dark suit and characteristic fedora, holding a small wrapped package in his translucent-skinned hands.

I was a frilly, bouncy package myself, wearing a starched candy-stripe party-dress, brimming over with the excitement of the bright summer day and all that such parties mean to the very young. I couldn't note the pathos of that slim, silent, dark-suited figure in the midst of all the childhood uproar -- the party hats, favors, ice cream-and-cake-iness. But soon it was time to open my presents -- not a one of which I remember now, save for the smallish package handed me by the oldest person there, and which I still possess.

The paper came off -- and there, THERE was the beloved little wooden box, the contents of which I knew without opening. It's funny how at a remove of 38 years I can still remember the flood of emotions -- the shock, the delight, and the hilarity at finally getting the joke.

I don't recall my grandfather smiling easily, certainly not broadly. His sense of humor was excruciatingly dry, of a wry, ironic sort -- a legacy of Englishness, perhaps. And yet he lacked the callous edge his father William's sense of humor possessed, and was not one for practical jokes -- but he took a delight in the "big surprise" or revelation -- something I would note with amusement in the Sherlock Holmes tales I read long years after Grampa's death: I couldn't help but think of him when the solution to the mystery appeared dramatically in a butter dish in those digs at 221B. Perhaps he owed a little of his theatrical sense to the character whose name shadowed him all his life.

No, Grampa was not one for frequent, gratuitous smiles, but the camera that day captured a smile of an immense genuine happiness on his face, the smile of an aged man of science who has discovered his grandchild (girl or no!) values a small lab instrument more than the popular dolls and toys of the day --  a smile all his reserve could not repress. He was as thrilled as I was. Perhaps my exuberant hug of thanks gave him a sense of completion -- the knowledge that his curiosity about the universe had come full circle, and would survive as a family legacy into the unimaginable world he would not live to see.

This was 1962 -- a landmark year which made a lasting imaginative impression on me -- and not simply on the strength of one birthday gift. For 1962 brought a "World's Fair" to Seattle, changing the city skyline and outlook as no prior event in its history had. I still find an odd comfort in the fact my grandfather lived to see the Space Needle rise above the industrial grey nonentity of Seattle's urban core -- a durable symbol of the fusion of art and science, while equally an icon of the hospitality industry, my father's world. And to see the Science Center's arches uphold their skeletal geometries against blue summer skies -- like vaulted cathedral ceilings pared to essential statement, open entirely to light, to Truth. Metaphors, perhaps, for my grandfather's own uncluttered and dignified faith.

* * *

"Grampa," I began cautiously one afternoon, when the two of us were in the living room near the old Apollo grand piano, observing the antics of the neighbor's Cocker Spaniel through the large plate-glass windows, "Grampa, what happened to your hair?"

This was a matter that faintly troubled me, for my own father had thick, wavy hair and I couldn't imagine why my grandfather should have so little. I had asked Mom sotto voce on more than one occasion what the origin of Grampa's baldness was, and she always replied, with what I should have recognized as a congenital twinkle, "You'll have to ask your grandfather."

It wasn't that I didn't like the way my grandfather looked -- I thought he was perfect as he was. But it struck my young self as something of a mystery, so at last I grew brave enough to inquire. He looked at me oddly, then turned away to assume a far-off, reminiscent expression. "Well, Mindi, it happened long, long ago. One day -- well, one day I just stepped out into a high wind." I gaped at him. No longer as gullible as the 3-year-old who believed in the Magnifying Lens Burglar, I detected a whiff of Eau de Leg-Pulling. "Nah," I retorted, "not really? You couldn't really lose your hair in a high wind?"

My grandfather assumed an air of mock-injury at my skepticism, and insisted. "That's exactly what happened. One day I stood out in a high wind and all my hair blew COMPLETELY off." (An exaggeration, as he retained a fringe of white hair in a neat semi-circle around the back of his head.) And that was that. While he couldn't entirely suppress the hint of a wry smile when I badgered him on the same subject in future, he never, ever offered any other version of his Hair Loss than that of the infamous High Wind.

But the truth is, the "ordinary Grampa things" remain as cherished in my memory, such as my sight of the bald dome of his head coming up from the deeps of the stairwell, following a descent to the lab to perform "surgery." I had waited anxiously upstairs, dreading the outcome; the patient was well-cherished, and I feared the worst.

Grampa was holding the casualty of childish rough-house in one arm; unlatching the safety gate at the top of the steps, he arrived on the narrow landing between the central hall and the dining room, and stooped to set the object of my concern on the floor. "Well, now, let's see how this little fellow is." Holding the long battery case in one hand, he pushed a button: "YAP!YAP!YAP!" went the small black-and-white-plush-covered toy dog, its red metal mouth snapping open and shut in time with its noisemaker. Shuffle-shuffle-shuffle ... "YAP!YAP!YAP!!!" Both bark and stiff-legged gait had come back to life -- my beloved mechanical beagle had been saved. Once again the family's Electrical Whiz had salvaged the unsalvageable with some clever rewiring. Only a slight ruffling of the toy dog's shoulder fur served to indicate that "America's Sherlock Holmes" had taken a scalpel to him.

He collected stamps; he collected coins; he collected minerals, and of course books; in fact he collected and kept just about everything. There can be no doubt where my mother's and my "hunter-gatherer" instincts came from -- certainly not from the impatient minimalism and dust-aversion of my grandmother. Now I wring my hands with regret at all the fascinating oddities that ultimately slipped through them, for little of all that eccentric and valuable hoard remains. My own idealistic (if short-lived) anti-material-clutter teenage phase accounts for some of the loss, the attrition of ignorant childhood mistreatment (so fared the stamps!) and various household moves the rest. But I can see it all in my mind's eye -- from a snake's tail rattle to a huge chunk of iron pyrite -- preserved for now in the ephemeral museum of my brain.


Even I at a tender age always associated my grandfather with guns, or at least one old gun-stock. This wooden artifact (denuded of all metal parts -- evidence of the wholesale dismantling his immense gun collection was subjected to at the start of World War II, for fear it might fall into the hands of "the enemy") was to me a toy. I'll credit my grandfather with never having treated me as a "silly girl" --  never insisted I confine myself to dolls, kitchen sets, and other play-ware "appropriate" for girls. His idea of proper Christmas presents for his granddaughter ranged from pre-packaged seashell collections to toy saxophones; despite my almost stereotypic femininity (in many early photos I'm all frills and ribbons and Mary Janes), the love of nature and the unique he had helped instill in me served to make me as interesting to him as any grandson.

That said, it will be understood that there was nothing unusual about the two of us setting off, armed with the old gun-stock from the basement guest bedroom closet, to Hunt Tigers in India (or at least in a basement transformed by kindred wild imaginations).

The basement guest-bedroom was located next to the laboratory, and relatively Spartan, save for a pair of barrister's bookcases and a chest-of-drawers housing the last of Grandma May's velvet crazy quilts -- a masterpiece like a fabric stained-glass window I loved to take upstairs and spread out over the venerable Chinese rug to pore over its details for hours.

The bed was high, with a massive lumpy mattress and an old chenille spread; Grampa and I would pretend this relic was an Indian elephant, and sit on the end of it, shading our eyes for a glimpse of tigers below in the jungle. Grampa -- being Grampa -- would yarn on and on about past "safaris" (or whatever their Indian counterpart is called!) and Rajahs he had known -- all for the sake of the proper flavor. We'd take turns pretending to sight through the invisible scope on the old gun-stock, looking for Shere Khan, of whose malign exploits I knew from the 78rpm recordings of The Jungle Book (based on the Korda film starring Sabu) my grandparents owned. Grampa would explain technical details of the firearm (that weren't there, of course), and I (already shaping up into the future Animal Advocate I remain) would subvert the hunting text of our elephant-back sojourn to more of a sightseeing matter. My grandfather easily acquiesced -- it made for more creative story-telling anyway!

He was a natural storyteller and a wonderful reader of printed tales. My mother never forgot the Bible stories he brought to life at bedtime readings, nor will I ever forget "Old Abe," the bald eagle whose anecdotal biography he sonorously produced from the pages of an antiquated zoology tome, The Animal Kingdom: Its Varieties and Oddities, written by one Rev. W. Bingham, and published in 1877. Many times I pestered Grampa to bring this deluxe, leather-bound, gold-embossed volume down from its closet shelf in his study, so that he might read me the same favorite animal tales over and over and over


My grandfather also possessed a beautiful basso singing voice, according to my mother, and had a penchant for songs about rivers -- "Deep River" and "Old Man River" amongst them. My grandmother, too, was reputed to have some singing talent, but I only heard her produce one jaunty rendition of "I Love Coffee, I Love Tea, I Love the Boys and They Love Me!," accompanying herself on the Apollo. My own parents loved music, but neither of them could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket. "You get your voice from your grandfather," my mother often said, with an apologetic smile. It is rather amusing to consider being descended from a Singing Sherlock Holmes.

Not only was my grandfather a repairer of toy dogs, but a repairer and improver of kites. We stood out in a high wind together upon occasion (or at least in a healthy spring-time breeze!) to re-launch a modified version of a store-bought kite my folks had given me (I vaguely recall it having a bird design -- a phoenix or hawk or some such feathered thing). The cheap materials of the kite and my youthful inexperience with such things had brought it to an initial crack up, so my grandfather's skills were enlisted in the salvage department. Naturally, his modifications improved its original airworthiness, and I can see it still, as we stood in the small patch of lawn in front of my folks' suburban home in Newport Hills (Bellevue, WA), sailing up against the blue of an Easter Day sky, while my Grandfather, Dad, and self looked happily on.

He is gone; his world is gone -- now as strangely antique as any Ancient History. My parents, too, and their particular world have vanished; I remain, feeling at times as though my own world were in the process of fading from sight along with theirs. So many lives lived, worlds inhabited, all as fleeting and illusory as the bands of light briefly refracted from my grandfather's prism.

What of that prism itself? I had it for years after his death -- and then? Given away, or lost -- the memory refuses to resurface. And yet, I can still see the tiny box the prism came in its gold cardboard bottom, and black leatherette top with angled sides, embossed with the name of the optic-house manufacturer. And I can see the bright bands of pure color flashing over floor and walls and ceiling ... a multitude of rainbows spilling from my Grampa's hand. Part science, part spiritual metaphor ... whatever it may be, the image endures.



"Light Through a Prism" is exerpted from a longer piece. Copyright 2000 by Mindi Reid.

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