James Dundon added science to detective work in Columbus


The story of the Columbus Division of Police is a rather complicated one.

Columbus is a created city. At the forks of the Scioto River there was nothing but forests, wolves, and a large Native American mound until the 1812 Ohio General Assembly decided to build a new capital closer to the center of the state.

The new village soon had about 700 inhabitants, but no police force until 1816 when the Columbus Parish was established. The council members elected a mayor, Jarvis Pike, and Samuel King as marshal from among their number.

Ed Lentz

In the early years, it seems, the Marshal was either very bored, very effective, or both. That is not to say that the Marshal was not needed. Early reports recall a thief market run outside the city limits by a man named Jones, which is now Columbus State Community College. And there were several unreliable people in a town that had more inns and taverns than churches.

Even so, it wasn’t until 1858 that the leaders of the city of Columbus felt the need for a police force.

With the arrival of the state road, the Ohio and Erie canals, and several railroads, the village was a town of 18,000 people. The marshal remained the man in charge, but now he was assisted by a permanent police force of 10 regular officers and 20 special officers. The local police were stationed in a two-story brick building on Town Street, with 11 cells on the first floor and a police hall on the second floor.

James Dundon

After the civil war, Columbus became an important regional traffic and trade center and grew to 125,000 inhabitants by 1900. The police also grew larger as they became a controversial chessboard in political battles between ethnic Irish and Germans and local political parties.

During much of Columbus’ early history, if a detective was needed, the mayor or marshal asked a pair of officers to put on civilian clothes and figure out what needed to be discovered. By the turn of the century, the department had a number of full-time detectives, and Mayor Robert Jeffrey felt the need to have a chief detective.

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He chose James Dundon as its first permanent detective boss. Dundon was one of those restless young men who sought progress and success wherever that journey might lead them.

Dundon was born in Columbus in 1872. After attending the local schools, he worked for Green, Joyce and Co. as a dry goods salesman for several years. He worked as a shipyard clerk with the Big Four Railroad until 1894, when he returned to Green, Joyce and Co. In 1895 he became the personal secretary of Police Commissioner Patrick Kelly and in 1899 a full-time detective.

A brief description of the department in 1900 noted its work.

“Detective Dundon has certainly sent his number of guilty parties to the large prison and has helped send many other prisoners to other cities and states for punishment. As secretary of the department, it was decided to introduce the Bertillon system (identification by physical measurements) in prison, and Detective Dundon was tasked with completing this system. … Although Detective Dundon has been the youngest member of the division in years, his skill has been recognized across the country for his knowledge of professional thieves and his memory has helped him identify many wanted crooks. ”

In 1904, Dundon became the first permanent detective boss. He delegated maintenance of the Bertillon system to a young officer, Harry French. Both men were successful at their jobs, and French eventually became a longtime police chief.

Dundon, on the other hand, was a man on the move. In 1910, he became assistant state fire department marshal on what was then a prestigious salary of $ 1,500. In 1914 he left Ohio to become detective chief for the Northern Pacific Railroad in Spokane, Washington. Dundon died in Portland, Oregon in 1950.

Dundon was an important figure in Columbus police history. In a few years he had changed the way criminals were identified and arrested and built a functioning detective agency in the city.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.