Vollmer learned that at the time of Kennedy's death, the man was also wanted in Canada, Mexico, and Australia for murder, safe burglary, and theft. It seemed that Jack LeStrange had shot down a notorious, international criminal.
Vollmer was able to piece together the story of Kennedy's life. The man's criminal career reflects the freedom even the most infamous offenders had in those days. These men had the freedom to move from one city and country to another committing one major crime after another using a variety of assumed names and identities. Whenever Kennedy was arrested, the authorities who had him in custody had no way of knowing who they really had and how many other police agencies were looking for him. Because of this, Kennedy was either released when the local case fell through or afforded the opportunity to escape through weak security. This of course was made possible because the police had no sure-fire method of identifying and keeping track of repeat offenders.
Originally from Detroit, Kennedy committed his first crime in 1884 when he and another man broke into a post office near Windsor, Canada. Kennedy and his partner were arrested shortly thereafter while crossing over to America on the ferry that ran between Windsor and Detroit. While awaiting trial in the Sandwich, Canada Jail, the men escaped by shooting the jailor to death with revolvers that had been smuggled into the jail. Kennedy was recaptured soon after and sentenced to twenty years. His partner, dressed as a woman, escaped to Detroit.
A year later, Kennedy escaped from the Kingston Prison and fled to Cleveland where he burglarized a fur store. Three days later he was arrested in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania in possession of $6,000 worth of fur coats. Kennedy, handcuffed to one police officer and accompanied by another, was put on a train for Cleveland. Half-way there, a gang headed by “Blinkey” Morgan boarded the train. Morgan and his men freed Kennedy by murdering the two policemen. A week later, the Pinkertons caught up with Morgan. He was tried, convicted, and in 1887, hanged. As for Kennedy, he had escaped to Australia.
During the next ten years, Kennedy and his gang committed dozens of burglaries and thefts in Australia and San Francisco. In 1898, Kennedy and two other criminals were arrested in connection with the burglary of a warehouse in Melbourne. A month later they were free again, pulling off a bank robbery in Auckland, Australia. After the bank job they fled back to San Francisco.
Kennedy stole, in 1899, $10,000 from a Wells Fargo wagon that was parked outside of the Anglo-California bank in San Francisco. After committing this and several other crimes in the city, he traveled to Mexico where he broke into a bank and stole another $10,000. He was arrested by the Mexican police but broke out of jail again. From Mexico he went to Chicago where he burglarized several more banks which got the Pinkertons on his trail. Kennedy had such a successful crime spree in Chicago, he was able to afford a trip around the world.
Shortly after Kennedy returned to America, he was picked up in Dallas on suspicion of burglary. Although he was wanted by the authorities in Mexico, Australia, and San Francisco, and by the Pinkertons in Chicago, Kennedy was released from custody. He was let go when the Dallas authorities couldn’t make the burglary case stick. Kennedy returned to San Francisco where he hit another bank before sailing to Australia.
Kennedy was back in the bay area in 1905 working with the Castile brothers and a 70-year-old bank burglar named Baldy Taylor. Kennedy and his friends had learned that $65,000 had been transferred into the West Berkeley Bank to meet a Standard Oil payroll. On that fatal September night, Kennedy and his men were certain the bank held $100,000. The gang had been poised to make their move when Vollmer's deputy peddled into their lives.
Matthew Kennedy, fully identified, was on display in the Berkeley morgue. The leader of the gang had been identified, but the Castile brothers and Baldy Taylor were still unidentified and at large. Vollmer and his deputies staked out the morgue so they could follow any visitors who came to pay their respects.
On the third day of surveillance, two women came to see the body. The younger female, the older woman's daughter, cried hysterically. When the two ladies left the morgue, Vollmer's men followed them to San Francisco and a house on Telegraph Hill. Vollmer telephoned the San Francisco Police Department and was told that a woman known as “Little Egypt,” a famous Barbary Coast belly dancer, or “torso-tosser” as they were then called, resided at that address. By questioning “Little Egypt,” Vollmer was able to identify Kennedy's three accomplices. Although the Castiles and Baldy Taylor had left the bay area, they were later arrested and convicted in connection with other crimes.
Today a fugitive like Matthew Kennedy, arrested for a minor offense, would be identified through his fingerprints and held for extradition. It is this aspect of fingerprint science, not the recovery and identification of fingermarks left by criminals at crime scenes, that has revolutionized the way the police deal with crime and criminals.
In this era of computers and fingerprints, modern police have an easy time identifying the people they arrest. That problem, unfortunately, had been replaced by a worse one: our criminal justice system has become overwhelmed by crime, and today, all we seem to do with criminals is identify
2. The most complete account of the Matthew Kennedy case is in a series of 51 articles about August Vollmer written by Robert Shaw for the Oakland Post Enquirer. The series began in the May 24, 1938 edition of the paper. The episode involving Matthew Kennedy is the subject of Chapter 6 of the series. The entire piece is a part of the Vollmer papers at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. The details of Kennedy's background can be found in: Duke, Thomas S., Celebrated Criminal Cases of America, (San Francisco: The James H. Barry Co., 1910) pp 226-9. Other accounts of the case can be found in: Payne, Gene and Bennett L. Williams, “Scientific Cop, Part II.” True Detective, 41:3 (Dec. 1943) pp 30-2; and Wilson, O.W., “August Vollmer,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Political Science, 44(1), May-June, 1953, pp 95