CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

A Brief History of Jeopardy!

Original image
Getty Images

The long-running game show is adored by millions. But there was a time—and another time, and one more time—when questions swirled around its survival.

When he welcomed a reporter into his Southern California home, the 44-year-old Alex Trebek was on a roll. Trebek was an industry veteran. For years, he’d worked as a newscaster and sportscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation while trying to kick-start his career as a TV personality. So far, nothing had stuck. But at the start of the 1984 TV season, he landed something promising—a job as the host of Jeopardy!

Everett Collection

Unfortunately, the program had a checkered history. Ratings had soared in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the show had also been canceled—twice. Now the high-paying trivia contest was being updated for a new generation. And as Trebek had quickly learned, Jeopardy!’s biggest hurdle was convincing station managers that a smart game show deserved premium air time. It was a hard argument to make. Programmers knew that established game shows like The Price Is Right and Family Feud could reliably draw a mass audience. But a show this cerebral was a gamble. In several major markets, including New York, Jeopardy! was relegated to a 2 a.m. time slot, a ratings wasteland. Trebek and the producers were pressured to dumb down the program and make the clues easier so viewers wouldn’t feel left out. Still, he remained optimistic.

As he and the reporter chatted, Trebek suavely flipped on his TV. At the time, Los Angeles was an outlier, airing the show at the decent hour of 3 p.m. But instead of seeing himself trot out to greet the audience, Trebek saw Jack Klugman. The local affiliate had replaced Jeopardy! with reruns of Quincy, M.E. “The fact that Quincy was a coroner seemed appropriate,” Trebek would later write. His optimism instantly disappeared.

What a difference three decades make. Trebek no longer worries about job security. But before viewers grew accustomed to shouting answers at the screen, its host and crew had to resolve one nagging question: Was Jeopardy! too smart for its own good?

Creating Jeopardy!

In the early days of TV, game shows were a network’s secret weapons. The programs were cheap to produce, with no highly paid actors, and they attracted rabid fan bases—everyday people who could identify with the ecstasy that came from winning a new oven. According to Olaf Hoerschelmann, Ph.D., director of the school of mass communication at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “One successful quiz show could get a 50 percent ratings share or more—half of all households watching.”

At the height of the genre’s popularity in the 1950s, Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question became national obsessions. City streets, Hoerschelmann says, were quiet when they aired. But with ratings and revenue at stake, producers became hungry for melodrama, so they manufactured suspense by feeding answers to contestants. It was all fun and games until 1956, when one contestant blew the whistle, and Congress stepped in to investigate.

Having broken the audience’s trust—and inviting a federal law that prohibited the fixing of game shows—the genre all but disappeared. This didn’t sit well with Merv Griffin, a television host, producer, and game show developer for NBC. On a flight to New York in 1963, Griffin was discussing his worry with his wife, Julann: How could he convince a network to take another chance on trivia?

“Why not just give them the answers to start with?” Julann mused.

She was joking, but Griffin’s eyes lit up. Back in his office, he outlined a template: 10 subject categories, each containing 10 answers of varying difficulty, with a dollar value assigned to each. Griffin invited friends over to his Central Park West apartment for run-throughs. Although he wasn’t the first to use the inverted answer format—1941’s CBS Television Quiz had a similar premise—Griffin was sure he could create something special. He called his show What’s the Question? and presented it to NBC executives.

The network was intrigued, but skittish. To convince the execs, Griffin reminded them that, unlike in decades past, there was little money at stake. Instead of tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, some clues were worth just $10. Before long, he got the green light.

As Griffin refined the format, the network wanted to ensure that the show was compelling enough. What the game needed, one executive suggested, was “more jeopardies.” “I didn’t hear another word he said,” Griffin later wrote. “All I could think of was the name: Goodbye What’s the Question?, hello Jeopardy!” After months of tinkering, he presented his show for final approval.

The game was streamlined into six categories. The rounds moved from Jeopardy, to Double Jeopardy, with harder questions worth more cash. In NBC’s boardroom, Griffin pasted envelopes onto poster board and filled them with index cards revealing the answers. He emceed the run-through himself.

“It’s too hard!” Mort Werner, the head of NBC, cried, throwing up his arms in frustration. He hadn’t gotten one question right. Werner’s assistant leaned over to him and said, “Buy it.” 

Soon enough, Griffin had ironed out the details. Art Fleming, a game show novice, was selected to host, and for background music, Griffin composed a rather suspenseful tune. But the real proof of concept was the ratings, and Jeopardy! found itself in an unlucky spot, pitted against The Dick Van Dyke Show. Jeopardy! made its debut at 11:30 a.m. EST on March 20, 1964, and it was an almost instant hit. Within weeks, it had grabbed 40 percent of the viewers in its time slot. People were playing along on college campuses and during lunch breaks. Despite its success, NBC felt less demanding clues would reap greater rewards: They wanted 13-year-olds to be able to keep up. Griffin refused. He wanted the program to stay smart. This was a competition between adults, and he saw little sense in diluting a game meant to highlight intellect.

“Griffin’s genius in designing games was, if you’re changing channels and hit one, you don’t need anything explained to you,” says Bob Harris, a multi-time contestant and strategy expert who penned a memoir about his experiences, Prisoner of Trebekistan. “The shows that have failed spend half their time explaining what’s happening.” Griffin’s instincts were spot-on. Between 1964 and 1975, Jeopardy! taped more than 2,500 episodes. The show regularly beat reruns and soap operas.

Then, in 1975, the network abruptly pulled the plug. Despite solid ratings, NBC wanted to appeal to a younger, female demographic. The show was reinstated in 1978, then canceled again less than six months into its run. Daytime soaps had come to dominate afternoon time slots. Worse, network research indicated that viewers weren’t interested in another incarnation of Jeopardy! The show was at risk of becoming a footnote in Griffin’s career.

Jeopardy! in Jeopardy

Everett Collection

In 1983, Griffin met with executives at King World Productions about doing a syndicated version of Jeopardy! Though the show had fizzled, Griffin’s career had not. Wheel of Fortune—a game that had grown out of his childhood passion for Hangman—had become a monster hit by the fall of 1983. Griffin had other successes too, including Click and Ruckus. But for all his hits, Griffin couldn’t let go of Jeopardy! He still believed his quiz show had legs. Luckily, King World execs agreed, and they had reason for their optimism: The board game Trivial Pursuit, which had debuted in 1981, had grown into a phenomenon, proving consumers had a healthy appetite for trivia. Additionally, they knew if they paired Jeopardy! with Wheel, it would be easier to sell networks on the programming block.

As Griffin envisioned updating his show for the 1980s, a decade blinking wildly with VCRs, video games, and MTV, Griffin dreamed up a glossier, flashier show—one with a hightech game board made up of video monitors instead of paper cards. Decades removed from the quiz scandals, he also wanted higher monetary stakes, with individual clues worth up to $2000. The original theme song would be rerecorded with synthesizers.

Fleming was the revamp’s earliest casualty. King World suggested that Griffin hire the younger, more polished Trebek to helm the faster-moving game show. “He’s like a pilot for the show,” Harris says. “He knows how to keep the tone right and when to lighten it up.”

Trebek’s charms notwithstanding, King World executives parroted the same concerns as their predecessors, advising Griffin to dumb down the questions. Again, Griffin refused. But this time, he had an ally in Trebek.

“We were getting feedback saying, ‘It’s too tough,’ ” Trebek recalled later in an interview. “I told them, ‘Well, I’ll ease up on the material.’ And I didn’t ease up.”

Rather than placate the syndicate, Griffin and Trebek raised the intensity of the game. Runners-up would no longer be allowed to keep their winnings. The original show proved that players sometimes wanted just enough to make a specific purchase and would stop buzzing in once they met their goal. (One contestant needed money for an engagement ring and stood silent as soon as he earned enough.) Now, players would be tempted to wager on Final Jeopardy, ensuring the entire game would remain suspenseful.

When Jeopardy! reappeared in the fall of 1984, the makeover wasn’t noticed by many. The show, perceived as a warmed-over relic of the 1970s, was stuck in deadend time slots. Then, shortly after its debut, New York’s ABC station tried it out in the early evening. Ratings immediately improved. Other affiliates noticed and followed suit. While Jeopardy! was still a poor fit for daytime, its pace proved perfectly suited for evening airings.

Trebek suggested viewers could be drawn in better if they felt more like participants. In its earlier iterations, contestants could ring in before the host finished giving the answer, which made for a frenzied game. By 1985, the show prevented players from hitting the buzzer until Trebek finished reading so the home audience could shout out answers too. As they tweaked the formula, King World and Griffin realized they’d struck gold. The faster pace, the syndicate’s patience, and Trebek’s tailor-made emcee skills all turned Jeopardy! into a permanent and profitable fixture on the dial.

Five years later, Jeopardy! was being watched by more than 15 million people daily, and 250,000 applicants applied each season for one of the show’s 500 available slots. As the show went on, its rituals—the pervasive theme music, phrasing answers in the form of a question—became cultural touchstones.

A last significant tweak was the removal of the five-game limit for returning champions. With that ceiling removed, Ken Jennings famously went on an unprecedented 74-show winning streak in 2004, garnering headlines across the country and further embedding the show in the cultural consciousness. Jennings’s celebrity, Hoerschelmann says, meant that the quiz show genre had come full circle. “It was no accident the show got more popular once it lifted the limit,” he says.

The current 2013–14 season is Jeopardy!’s 30th in syndication. Pulling in an average of 25 million viewers a week, it shows no signs of slowing—though Trebek has hinted he’ll step down in 2016. While producers will face a challenge finding a successor, it would seem a sure bet that Jeopardy! will continue to celebrate a brand of cognitive aptitude rarely found on television. In the smartphone era, when information is instantly accessible, it’s more impressive than ever to watch someone conjure answers without Wi-Fi.

Jeopardy! is a very classic hero’s journey,” Harris, the former player, says of the show’s enduring appeal. “The contestant is achieving goals with escalating stakes and obstacles. There’s even a three-act structure. The only difference between this and what Joseph Campbell laid out is there are three heroes.” Four, if you count the viewer at home, a pen standing in for a buzzer, realizing they know a lot more than they thought they did.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Art
Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
Original image
iStock

In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

Original image
Rob Culpepper
arrow
crime
Hot Meals and Cold Cases: Solving Crimes at the Detectives’ Lunch Club
Original image
Rob Culpepper

By Matthew Shaer

On a brisk day last November, law enforcement professionals and forensic scientists crowded into a dining room at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia to eat lunch and stare at photos of dead bodies. The contrast was startling: fine steaks served on white china, sumptuous wallpaper dimly lit by elegant candelabra, and blood and limbs projected onto a screen. Tucked into the back of the room, I struggled to keep down my coffee. My tablemates, most of them graying and austere, clad in smart, dark suits, seemed unbothered.

“Can you make the picture a little bigger?” shouted one.

“It’s hard to see the hands,” added another.

The hands in question belonged to David Hayes, a retiree from a small town in Nebraska. Two years earlier, in the fall of 2010, an intruder had broken into the back door of a condo owned by David and his wife, Joan.* David was savagely shot and bludgeoned to death; Joan was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and face. A pocketknife emblazoned with the logo of the Nebraska State Police was found buried in Joan’s sternum.

The details mystified police. Nothing appeared stolen. Joan was posed in a sexual way—her nightgown jimmied up around her neck, her legs splayed apart. Rings of table salt were spread in careful circles around the bodies. The pages of a rare edition of the Bible were scattered over David’s corpse, and there were multiple, careful stab wounds around his eyes.

After two years of investigation, the case was ice-cold. So in late 2012, David Schumann and Pete Webber, the Nebraska cops running the case, packed information on the Hayes murders into manila envelopes and sent them to the headquarters of the Vidocq (pronounced vee-dock) Society, a crime-solving organization founded in 1990 by a group of forensics specialists. Well-known in law enforcement circles, the Vidocq Society is a last resort—it’s where cops turn when every lead has come to naught. For Schumann and Webber, it was their best and perhaps last hope for a break. If the Vidocq Society couldn’t crack the case, nobody could.

FRESH EYES FOR COLD CASES

At first, there were three: William Fleisher, Richard Walter, and Frank Bender. At the time, Fleisher, now retired, was a police officer turned FBI special agent turned chief of Customs Service in Philadelphia. Walter was a respected crime scene analyst and forensic psychologist for the Michigan prison system—what Hollywood calls a profiler. Bender (who passed away in 2011) was a forensic reconstructionist who specialized in taking the skulls of murder victims and sculpting recognizable three-dimensional models of their faces.

In 1989, Bender introduced Walter to Fleisher over lunch, and the three men got to talking about old cases—the ones that congealed like aging butter, the ones investigators abandoned for lack of time or resources. They talked for three hours, leading Fleisher to make a proposal: Why not formalize this process into a kind of club where they could more rigorously tackle the cases that interested them? Fleisher had a name in mind—the Vidocq Society, after Eugène François Vidocq, a 19th-century fraudster turned private investigator. He also supplied the motto: Veritas veritatum, or “truth begets truth.”

The first Vidocq Society meeting was held in late 1990, in a conference room at the Naval Yard, in Philadelphia. Twenty-six people attended. The crime in question involved a South Carolina car dealer, his wife, and their son, all of whom had been tied in their home, killed, and left to rot in an upstairs bathroom. The society’s members felt they could identify the culprit if they could ask more questions, but no investigators directly connected to the case were on hand; Walter, who had consulted on the case, had presented the crimes to the group himself. Next, the society tried solving historical cases, but again, the members couldn’t share their suspicions with or ask questions of anyone who’d been on the scene. Not being able to affect the course of the long-abandoned investigations was too frustrating.

“We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got to have a mission, and we’ve got to have some clarity,’ ” Fleisher said. The members decided to set some ground rules. Cases should be relatively recent but at least two years old. The police should be willing to cooperate, if not present the cases themselves. And drug and organized crime killings were off-limits.

But why take any murders off the table? “Those cases are very slippery,” Walter says. “There are a lot of angles and twists that often have to do with the crowd that the victim associated with. The story of the dealer, the buyer, local gangs, the milieu of the city itself”—the particulars would be too difficult to convey in the course of such a short presentation.

At the same time, the Vidocq Society also decided to codify regulations on the membership process. Applicants had to be referred by a current member in good standing and offer something that others could not. “We’ve had experts on drowning—saltwater and freshwater—psycholinguists, entomologists, people who specialize in the amount of time it takes for insects to swarm onto a dead body,” says Fred Bornhofen, the society’s 75-year-old chairman of the board emeritus and case-management director. “We’ve just recruited a woman who does research on isotope analysis. The point is we’re not for voyeurs.”

Word soon got out and detectives from all over the country flooded the office with requests. Before long, the Vidocq Society upped its meeting schedule from four times a year to nine. Today, the 82 chartered members hail from all areas of the crime-solving trade. There are DNA specialists, experts on cults, psychoanalysts, Naval Intelligence men, polygraphers, and long-retired FBI special agents. They convene every month, except July, August, and December—even veteran sleuths need a vacation—in the upper reaches of the Union League, a stately old building in the heart of Philadelphia. And at each meeting, over a lavish multicourse meal, they hear the details of a single unsolved case.

Fleisher does not like to speculate on the precise number of cases the Vidocq Society has helped solve. From the beginning, the club has made it policy to take a strictly advisory role in ongoing investigations, leaving the glory to the police officers in the trenches. But there’s a clear advantage to collecting and tapping into dozens of the best minds in law enforcement, and the fact that more than 300 cases have been brought to the group is testament. “I’d put it this way,” Fleisher laughs. “Eighty percent of the time we figure out who did it. It’s how you prove it—that’s the critical thing.”

Fleisher is careful to clarify that the Vidocq Society doesn’t always get its man. Still, there have been several notable successes. In the early 1990s, the members took on the case of a murdered woman and concluded that her killer had been a foot fetishist. The tip off? The woman’s shoes were missing—the killer had stolen them as mementos. More famously, there was the case of Scott Dunn, a 24-year-old Texas man who disappeared in 1991. Bloodstains had been found in Dunn’s apartment, but there was no body. In the mid-1990s, the Vidocq Society agreed to look into Dunn’s death. After a reexamination of the blood spatter patterns and DNA evidence, its members concluded that Leisha Hamilton, Dunn’s longtime girlfriend, was the killer. She is currently serving 20 years in a federal penitentiary.

Bornhofen chalks up the society’s accomplishments not just to the expertise of its members but to their ability to examine a crime scene without any prejudice—in one case where a priest murdered an undertaker and his assistant, for instance, local police were reluctant to point a finger at a man of God. The Vidocq Society had no such problem.

REVISITING THE HAYES MYSTERY

David Schumann was still relatively new to homicide investigations when he and Pete Webber were assigned to the Hayes case. Webber, taller and wirier than his stocky partner, had been on the force for decades. The two detectives opened their investigation with a careful analysis of the crime scene and a list of potential suspects. The son, David Hayes, had been in charge of dispersing his parents’ trust. Louis Beck, the Hayeses’ fiftysomething son-in-law, had been the one to call in the murders—he claimed he’d found the bodies on his way back from church.

But there was the question of motive—no one seemed to have one. Truth be told, the detectives had a hard time imagining anyone would want to kill the Hayeses. Joan was soft-spoken and charming, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. David, a former accountant, spent most of his time at church or volunteering at a local ministry; in recent years, he’d become involved in a Christian movement led by a charismatic preacher named Bill Forster. The Hayeses lived quietly and simply.

They were not typical murder victims. Before long, Schumann and Webber’s investigation hit a brick wall.

In the minutes after lunch at the Union League was cleared, the crowd in the dining room circled the identity of the Hayeses’ killer carefully, asking gentle then pointed questions of Schumann and Webber and requesting second looks at some of the more interesting slides. It was clear that the cops had focused a good deal of their energy on the son-in-law. There wasn’t much motive there, but Beck had discovered the bodies, and he had also lawyered up, which certainly suggested something to hide.

A rotund Vidocq Society member raised his hand. “Maybe David Hayes was a pedophile, and he was killed by a victim,” the man said, stroking his chin. “Did you find any child pornography on his desktop?”

“None,” Webber said.

Another hand went up. This time, the questioner was a primly dressed woman in her sixties—an eminent forensic scientist. She pointed out that the Bible pages and rings of salt seemed to suggest a religious aspect to the crimes. In the Bible, after all, salt is often used to symbolize purification. Maybe the killer was a parishioner at the chapel where David Hayes sometimes worked? A murmur rippled across the room. The hive mind lurched into gear. An expert on cults confirmed that pagan groups also use salt. A ring of the stuff, she continued, might indicate that the bodies were a kind of offering. Attention was called back to stab wounds around Joan’s eye and the knife buried in her chest—two acts of extreme violence that might also be viewed as ceremonial in nature.

Then Walter strode to the front of the room and took the microphone. Later, he told me that it wasn’t typical of him to commandeer the floor like that, but he’d felt energized, on a roll. Clicking back through the pictures and eagerly gesticulating, he pointed out that the ring of salt around David’s body was incomplete; surely, if the murderer were actually interested in purification, the circle would have been closed. “I think what we’re looking at,” Walter said, “is someone trying to conceal the true motive of their crime.”

He suggested the detectives focus their energy on Bill Forster, the preacher, self-help guru, and friend of the Hayeses. David, as the detectives had noted, had been a prominent supporter of Forster’s. Perhaps he had grown disenchanted with the preacher or discovered that Forster was funneling the proceeds from his self-help products to some less-than-Godly enterprise. In that case, Forster certainly would have had a reason to kill the Hayeses.

At first, a few heads bobbed uncertainly, but then the entire room was nodding along; there were even some tentative claps.

“That’s very interesting,” Webber said.

A few minutes later, the meeting was officially adjourned, and the members of the Vidocq Society filed out into the hallway, one by one, happily chattering about the particulars of the case. Only Schumann and Webber stayed behind—they wanted to talk to Walter privately.

CASE CLOSED

A few weeks later, I called Walter at his home in northern Pennsylvania. When Walter is not occupied with Vidocq Society business, he keeps a busy schedule, traveling across the country for consultations and lecturing at conferences and universities on the finer points of profiling. Still, the Hayes killings had remained stubbornly on his mind.

“Of all murder cases brought to trial, only 27 percent have physical evidence and fingerprints,” he said. Because of television shows such as CSI, he continued, “we naively think that DNA can solve everything. It can’t. Sometimes it’s the good old-fashioned investigative arts. That’s where we can help.”

The Hayes case is extremely complicated—a “multilayered, economically related, cover-up kind of thing,” Walter says. But Walter had been in constant touch with the detectives from Nebraska, and he was confident they were zeroing in on the right suspect: Forster. “The guy will get caught,” Walter said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

As for the Vidocq Society, the next few years will be pivotal. The society remains an anomaly in the U.S.: a crime-solving organization made up entirely of freelance experts. But many of the original members, including Bornhofen and Fleisher, are hitting an age where they’re thinking about retiring from the club. The baton will have to be passed to a new generation of Sherlocks, and the founders are actively recruiting up-and-comers. Interested in joining the society? Well, the process is secretive, Walter says.

In other words, don’t call them. They’ll call you.

* Names, locations, and details have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.

This story originally ran in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios