COLUMNS

As It Were: James Dundon added science to detective work in Columbus

Ed Lentz
Guest Columnist
Columbus, which was settled in 1812 and incorporated in 1816, did not have a police force until 1858. The department had 10 full-time officers and 20 special-duty officers working out of a 2-story brick station house, shown in 1908, on West Town Street. The building had 11 cells on the ground floor and a hall for police use on the second floor.

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

Columbus is a created city. There was nothing at the forks of the Scioto River but woods, wolves and a large Native American mound until 1812, when the Ohio General Assembly decided to create a new capital closer to the middle of the state. 

The new village soon had a population of about 700 but no police force of any kind until 1816, when the borough of Columbus was created. From among themselves, members of council elected a mayor, Jarvis Pike, and Samuel King to be marshal.  

Ed Lentz

In the early years, it appears, the marshal was either very bored, very effective or both. This is not to say there was not a need for the marshal. Early accounts recall a thief’s market operated by a man named Jones outside the city limits where Columbus State Community College now sits. And there were several unreliable people in a town that had more inns and taverns than churches. 

For all that, it was not until 1858 that Columbus city leaders felt the need for a police force.

With the arrival of the National Road, the Ohio and Erie Canal and several railroads, the village had become a city of 18,000. The marshal remained the man in charge, but now he was aided by a permanent police force of 10 regular officers and 20 special-duty officers. The local police force was based out of a 2-story brick station house on Town Street, with 11 cells on the ground floor and a hall for police use on the second floor. 

James Dundon

After the Civil War, Columbus became a major regional center of transportation and trade and grew to a population of 125,000 by 1900. The police force grew larger, as well, as it became the contentious pawn in political struggles among ethnic Irish and Germans and the local political parties. 

For much of the early history of Columbus, when a detective was needed, the mayor or marshal would ask a pair of officers to don plainclothes attire and detect what needed detecting. 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 of detectives. 

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He chose James Dundon to be the first permanent chief of detectives. Dundon was part of the restless breed of young men seeking advancement and success wherever that journey might take them.

Dundon was born in Columbus in 1872. After attending local schools, he went to work for Green, Joyce and Co. for several years as a dry-goods clerk. He left to become a yard clerk with the Big Four Railroad until 1894, when he returned to Green, Joyce and Co. In 1895, he became personal secretary to police Chief Patrick Kelly and in 1899 became a full-time detective.  

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

“Detective Dundon has certainly sent his quota of culprits to the big penitentiary and has assisted in sending many another prisoner to other cities and states for punishment. While secretary to the department, it was decided to introduce the Bertillon system (of identification by physical measurement) into the prison, and Detective Dundon was detailed to complete this system. … Although Detective Dundon is the youngest member of the department in the point of years, his ability has become recognized all over the country for his knowledge of professional thieves, and his retentive memory has aided him in identifying many wanted crooks.” 

In 1904, Dundon became the first permanent chief of detectives. He delegated the Bertillon system’s maintenance to a young officer, Harry French. Both men were successful in their work, and French ultimately would become a longtime police chief. 

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

Dundon was an important figure in the story of the police in Columbus. In a few years, he had transformed criminal identification and apprehension and had developed a workable institution for detective work in the city. 

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