Sunday, March 2, 1890
Capt. Delos T. Bligh, the veteran Chief of Louisville’s detective force, is dead. The melancholy event occurred last evening at his residence, 1024 Seventh Street. The immediate cause of death was organic disease of the heart, although, since he first became ill, he had suffered with dropsy.
Capt. Bligh’s illness dates some five months back, and he has been growing gradually weaker ever since. He had not been out of the house for three months, but during that time had rallied frequently, sufficiently to create strong hopes in the breasts of his family that he would eventually recover, despite his advanced age. He had, however, told Capt. Daly that he would never get well. He was conscious up to the supreme moment and passed away with a struggle. He had been growing noticeably weaker during the forenoon and had caused Capt. Daly to be telephoned for. While conversing with Capt. Daly he exhibited signs of weakness, dozing off after speaking a few words and rallying with an effort. His eyes would roll, and he gave every evidence of approaching dissolution. He seemed to realize the fact, and when Capt. Daly left, about 12:30 o’clock, the sufferer said, ‘Good-bye, Jim,’ and feebly waved his hand, his manner and tone indicating that he knew the farewell was for all time.
Had Capt. Bligh lived until the 19th of this month he would have been sixty-seven years old. He was not a member of any church, but all his family belong to the Broadway Methodist Church, of which Dr. Gilby C. Keller is pastor. He leaves a widow, Mrs. Kate Bligh, and six daughters, three of whom are married. All were present at the time of his death, except Mrs. C. P. Williamson, wife of the well-known foundryman of Birmingham, the eldest daughter, who has been summoned by telegraph and will reach this city today. The next daughter is Mrs. Dr. Wiley Rogers, and the others are Misses Anna and Amy, twins, Miss Lois and Mrs. Nellie Watts, now a resident of Winfield, Kansas. Miss Anna is a teacher in the Tenth Ward school, Miss Amy in the Ninth Ward, and Miss Lois occupies the position of critic teacher in the Normal School.
Capt. Bligh was an old and honored member of the Masonic fraternity, having been made a Mason in Abraham Lodge, No. 8, of which Judge R. H. Thompson is the present Master, May 28, 1857. He was made a life member of the lodge October 25, 1872. As soon as the tidings of his death reached the City Hall, the fire bells were tolled, conveying the sad news to many friends who, anticipating the event, would know to whom this honor was paid. A detail of officers was made to watch beside the body. Detectives Daly and Fritsch were on the first part of the night, to be succeeded by Detective Cassin and Officer Leatherman the latter part, with Officer Wash Slater to perform a similar service after daylight this morning. Maj. Owens will make still further details today.
No funeral arrangements have been made, and none will be made until after the arrival of Mrs. Williamson from Birmingham. It is probable, however, that it will take place tomorrow afternoon. It is the desire of the family that the obsequies shall be as quiet as possible, but Capt. Bligh was so universally known, and so popular, that it is likely that this will have to be in a measure abandoned, in order that his friends may testify their appreciation of the worth of the man who, more than any other individual, has been of such great service to the city in ridding it of evil-doers and keeping them away.
The Detective’s Life
Capt. Delos T. Bligh was one of the most notable detectives of this country. By his sobriquet of ‘Yankee’ Bligh he was known far and near. To the crooks of the land the mere mention of his name caused a feeling of uneasiness. The sight of his towering figure and searching eye gave them a frigid sensation. He knew and had handled nearly all the clever thieves. Many of the cracksmen, konjacker, bunko steerer, forger, murderer and dark worker in every avenue of crime had felt the power of his hand, and one and all knew his reputation was not the result of fulsome praise or nerveless dread. The terror of his name alone, in keeping knaves away from the city, was worth all he ever received for his services.
He ranked second in his profession, Allan Pinkerton alone enjoying a more redoubtable position in the estimation of the people they had to deal with. And this fact arose largely from the latter having at his command a far greater number of assistants. In many respects Bligh was the equal and in some the superior of the founder of the Chicago detective bureau. They were great personal friends and always had a high regard for each other. Whenever Pinkerton wanted anything in Capt. Bligh’s territory, the latter was the man consulted.
The bare recital of all the detective work done by ‘Yankee’ Bligh would furnish a volume as thrilling as the most ingenious weavings of Gaboriau or Du Boisgobey or their rivals in the field of detective fiction. But Capt. Bligh had one trait that many others in his business lacked. He never sought notoriety and praise for his achievements. He was sometimes considered a little too reserved about telling the stories of his arrests and the facts about the captives. His mind was a storehouse of information about criminals that might have brought him a large pecuniary return had he consented to publish it. But his he never would. He kept most he knew to himself or imparted it only to his colleagues and subordinates when the occasion required. He was always careful not to allow a picture of himself to get into the hands of any one. He thought it might be reproduced and destroy a part of his effectiveness as a detective. But, two years ago, feeling that his active service in he field was about closing, he consented to allow his likeness to be published, and the first authentic sketch and portrait of him was given to the Courier-Journal at that time.
The afterward famous detective was born in the Empire State. It was at the little town of Franklin, Delaware County, New York, March 19, 1823, that he first beheld the light of day. While he was a mere boy, his parents removed to Meadville, Pennsylvania. As he grew up he was apprenticed to the trade of bricklaying and became a fair mechanic with the trowel. But this vocation was not entirely to his liking. The outdoor work developed a naturally grand constitution, and when he attained manhood his physical strength was equaled by that of few men. Added to this was an ignorance of such a sensation as fear. Still, he was very different from most men endowed with attributes. He was never overbearing or in the remotest degree brutal. On the contrary, he had a keen sense of right, and never abused the power of his personal strength or official position.
In his youth he read the stories of the great Far West. He heard the occasional tales of stragglers who had crossed the rolling prairies and slept in the shadows of the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. So, when he was nineteen years of age, he packed his carpet-bag and started. He had very little money. Up to that time he had never had much he could call his own. So, he had to work his way.
Reaching Pittsburgh, he halted for a time to replenish his exchequer. He remained there only a short time. In the meantime, he had cogitated his plans for the future. He was scarcely able to decide upon the course he would take, but finally concluded to go to the Rocky Mountains and enter the fur trade at the first round. But for the chance that caused him to locate in Louisville, he might have become to that craggy land what Kenton and Boone were to Kentucky, what Crockett and Houston were to Texas.
Stopped Here By Accident
However, young Bligh’s home was never nearer to the Occident than in the city beside the Ohio Falls. When the boat on which he took passage at Pittsburgh reached Louisville it had to lay up, because of low water preventing navigation. The first morning he walked up the levee into the city that was destined to become the scene of his later triumphs, he little thought he would make it his home. Still less did he anticipate the course he afterward pursued in his life. But that day he learned it would be a long wait before he could get further west. The only means of travel was by water. He could not live on nothing, so he sought work and found it, as a hod-carrier on the old Louisville Theater, the erection of which had just been begun on the site of the present Courier-Journal building, at Fourth and Green Streets. For a few weeks he climbed the ladder literally, bearing upon his broad shoulders the bricks and mortar for the Thespian temple. Then he metaphorically climbed the ladder of life one notch by receiving a promotion to the somewhat more exalted place at the top of the walls. He served as a brick-layer until the structure was completed. By this time, he had become attached to Louisville. He liked the people and they took well to the herculean young stranger whom chance had thrown among them.
When the United States threw the mantle of protection over the struggling Lone Star State, then smarting under the Mexican yoke, and war was declared, among the first to answer the call for troops was the Louisville Legion. Young Bligh was in the van. In May 1846, he enlisted in Company A, and a few days later went with it to help the Texans whip the greasers. Over the Rio Grande the Kentuckians went, to plant the stars and stripes above the cactus-covered Mexican soil. Private Bligh was a great favorite with his comrades. His presence seemed to make the bivouacs on the parched soil more endurable and the sharp marches less fatiguing. But he was not destined to stay with his company till the moment of triumph arrived, when Gen. Scott entered the City of Mexico at the head of the United States soldiery. At Bareta, nine miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande, he had his left arm broken, but he remained with his company. When the great battle of Monterey occurred, young Bligh entered the fray with his arm still in the sling. In the engagement it was again injured, and that time so badly that he never again was able to use it as effectively as he had before. The surgeon ordered him home and he arrived here in November 1846, after an absence of six months. It was a few weeks later that he entered first upon the duties of the vocation that brought him into prominence. Mayor Kaye sent for him and appointed him a deputy under Capt. William A. Ronald, then City Marshall.
At that time the entire police force consisted of sixteen Deputy Marshalls, two for each of the eight wards into which the city was divided. He remained in that position for several years, and then resigned to take the place of a private policemen at the theater he had helped to build. In 1856 he was again appointed to a place on the Louisville police force, this time by Mayor Barbee. He was soon made a day watchman-at-large and was the first officer of that character Louisville had. Later he was joined in the same capacity by Joe Jeans and still later by Capt. Jack Gallagher. For a long time, Capt. Bligh watched the river front, where all travelers arrived and departed from, before the days of the iron horse. Here he became acquainted, at least by sight, with all the crooks who traveled up and down the Ohio River.
He had developed remarkable aptitude for his work. While he had not himself given it any thought when he first began police duty, he was possessed of almost unequalled natural gifts as a detective. His memory of names, faces and facts were extraordinary, and this was of invaluable assistance to him. Many are the anecdotes related in criminal and police circles about his recollection. It has been frequently asserted, and most of his confreres still stoutly asseverate that if he saw a man once and had reason to bear him in mind, as he would in the case of a crook, he never forgot him. No matter what the circumstances, he would know him again wherever he saw him. But the only disadvantage he had was that the rule worked both ways. If ever a crook had dealings with Capt. Bligh, he, too, remembered the detective. It was next to impossible for him to disguise himself. He stood six feet one inch tall and weighed usually from 240 to 250 pounds. Whatever else he might do, he could not disguise the form. Capt. Bligh was fully aware that the value of disguise existed principally in the imagination of ‘Old Sleuth’ romances. The best detectives of all time have put little stress upon the assistance of disguises. Capt. Bligh scarcely gave them a consideration. He depended largely upon his mind. He studied criminal life from personal observation. So diligent was he in this regard that he mastered the details of the methods pursued by each actor in the drama of crime.
When a regular detective force was established in this city Capt. Bligh was one of the four men who composed it. He was made Chief Detective and had remained in that capacity through every change political or municipal ever since. When the clashings of Mayoralty or other contests made every other officer in the department quake for his head, Capt. Bligh remained unconcerned, and, with the best of men being decapitated all about him, he always remained in his position undisturbed. It was a tribute every Mayor had to pay the man’s genius, his value to the public, that none ever thought of displacing him. He formerly made frequent trips to all parts of the country but had ceased to do so of late years. Nearly forty-four years ago Capt. Bligh first became a public officer. The last term of service had extended over a continuous period of thirty-four years, and altogether he had devoted about forty-three years of his life to the vocation of public peace officer and detective.
Capt. Bligh was twice married, and his domestic relations were always of the most felicitous nature. The great hunter of criminals had a dual side to his character. Away from home he was ever the alert, shrewd detective, dispassionately and cleverly doing his duty. At home he was simply the man, wrapped up in the love of and for his wife and children. He was largely endowed with a love for domesticity, and not the least praiseworthy of his characteristics was the manner that characterized his every act as husband and father. He ten children, all daughters, five by his first marriage and five by his second. His first wife was Miss Cassandra Davis, a native of Virginia, who, however, with her parents, resided in Louisville at the time of her marriage to Capt. Bligh, about forty-five years ago. Three of the daughters who blessed this union are dead. The other two are Mrs. Emma Rogers, wife of Dr. Wiley Rogers, the well-known druggist, and Mrs. Mary H. Williamson, wife of Mr. Charles P. Williamson, head of the Williamson Iron Company, of Birmingham, Alabama. Their mother died in 1858, at the age of thirty-three years.
Capt. Bligh’s second marriage took place in 1859, when Miss Kate Ovington, of this city, became his wife. Four of their daughters and Mrs. Bligh survive the noted detective. The daughters are Misses Amy, Anna and Lois Bligh and Mrs. Nellie Watts, who, until recently, lived here, but now resides in Kansas.
Some of His Famous Cases
To attempt to enumerate the famous cases in which Capt. Bligh played a part would involve the criminal history of this section of the country. On many occasions he would probably have lost his life had he not been ever watchful in handling criminals. On only one occasion did he find it necessary, however, to take a human life. That was when, a few years ago, in the purest self-defense, he shot an infuriated Chinaman, who was charging on a crowd with an uplifted hatchet. Had he not fired his life would beyond doubt have been taken by the unrestrainable Celestial. Capt. Bligh was very promptly acquitted and fully exonerated both by the courts and public opinion.
One of the notable arrest he made was in company with Detective Gallagher, when George Shepherd, one of the Younger gang, was caught. The Youngers, Shepherd and two other members of the band of outlaws, named Cummings and Samuels, had robbed the bank at Russellville and killed the cashier. This was in 1866. A few months later Capt. Bligh located Shepherd in Nelson County. Taking Detective Gallagher with him he went to arrest him. Shepherd was found in a little cross-road grocery, armed to the teeth. As Bligh and Gallagher walked into the store Shepherd saw them. He threw a hand back to each hip, where a couple of revolvers adorned his cartridge belt. But before he could draw either pistol the two detectives were upon him. He struggled hard, and it looked several times as if the only way to save their own lives was to kill the desperado. Here was where Capt. Bligh’s physical strength served him well. Shepherd was subdued and disarmed. But for Capt. Bligh’s strength human blood would almost certainly have paid the penalty of an attempt to arrest the outlaw, who seemed to rather court death than submit to arrest.
Capt. Bligh and Gallagher also worked out the clues and traced down the famous counterfeiter Pete McCarthy, the most renowned maker of the queer that ever infested the Central United States. He was located and did his work at an old frame house, at Twenty-Ninth and Bank Streets, and there he was caught.
Another gang of counterfeiters that had been flooding the country with base coin was broken up by Capt. Bligh about 1866. It was known as the ‘Dago band’ and had their headquarters on Second Street, near Main. The plan was to make the money here and ‘shove’ it in all other parts of the country. Capt. Bligh worked a long time, tracing the counterfeiters to the seat of manufacture, and captured the whole band at one bold stroke. They were all sent to the penitentiary for long terms.
Brice McPhun, the Calcutta, forger, who had mulcted his victims in India for a quarter of a million, was also captured in this city by Capt. Bligh and Detective, now Maj. William Owens. The failure of the Calcutta officer to bring one paper allowed McPhun to go free on a technicality, habeas corpus being the means of his release.
When Stephen A. Douglas was stumping the country in his presidential canvass, in 1860, Capt. Bligh captured a whole busload of English pickpockets, who were following the campaign speakers, fleecing the people. Again in 1876, when Hayes was here, he repeated the operation, only this time the pickpockets were of all nationalities.
The consequence of such achievements as continuously marked his public career was to make thieves shun Louisville as the one place in the country where their most dangerous foe was. ‘Don’t go to Louisville,’ they would say to any ‘pal’ who had never been here, ‘that “Yankee” Bligh will nab you, sure. He is the toughest fly cop in the country and can’t square him.’
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky
Monday, May 27, 1912
Categories: Family Stories