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First Secret Service chief was no saint

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"Freedom's Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan and the Man Who Masterminded America's First War on Terror" by Charles Lane (Hanover Square Press, 336 pages, in stores)

As seems to be driven home on a daily basis, people we tend to look up to for things they've done may have also been involved in less savory things that taint their memory. Bill Cosby. Kevin Spacey. Heck, the countless names of people brought forward as a result of the #metoo movement.

So one might think the first chief of the U.S. Secret Service, Hiram C. Whitley, might have been beyond reproach, dedicated to his mandate to fight counterfeiting and combat the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan in the years after the Civil War.

As Charles Lane points out in his biography of Whitley, "Freedom's Detective," the man really wasn't a saint, despite his achievements on behalf of the nation's monetary situation and the civil rights of former slaves and their benefactors.

Whitley spearheaded operations to infiltrate the white supremacist KKK in the South and bring the hooded rapists and murders to justice. He also led the effort to maintain the legitimacy of America's first federally issued currency against counterfeiters and other criminals.

But in his early days, he defrauded a businessman in Boston. He later set up and helped ambush an effort to smuggle escaped slaves in Kansas and returned them to servitude in Missouri. He wasn't above using torture to get information from unwilling witnesses and tended to mistreat African Americans more than he did white people.

But in his later years, Whitley apparently balanced the mistreatment of a few people with the overall goal of making life better for a larger number of people. He despised efforts to steal the civil rights from former slaves and was willing to go to great lengths to bring down their tormentors.

Lane quotes Whitley as justifying the undercover use of investigators by saying, "in localities where the masses are defective, where the local police are governed by the popular prejudice, and where every stranger is looked upon with suspicion, all routine methods of detection become useless and must be superseded by entirely new and original modes of procedure."

As a result, he helped establish the concept of using undercover detectives to gather evidence to use against close-knit secret organizations like the Klan and other organized crime. At first, testimony from undercover operatives were dismissed in court as less than honest, considering the deception used to gather the evidence, but Whitley fought to overcome this prejudice in the judicial system.

Lane quotes Whitley as reporting to the attorney general that the KKK was a widespread conspiracy "inimical to the laws of the United States, formidable in numbers, in many instances well armed, and determined to accomplish its illegal purposes even to the sacrifice of life."

Lane tells a compelling story of a man who, with all his faults, still fought to make a difference and, for the most part, succeeded. Whitley was indeed no saint, but changes made in law enforcement under his direction made vast improvements in the way justice is handled today.

— Glen Seeber, The Oklahoman

Glen Seeber

Glen Seeber was born in Kansas, but his earliest memories are of residing in Ardmore, followed by attending kindergarten and first grade in Tripoli, Libya, where his father worked as a geologist. The rest of Glen's education was obtained in El... Read more ›

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