Will Griffin: He Brought Class to the Memphis Police Department

When Prohibition became law in 1920, the Italians and the Irish would not have any of it. The Majority of the Memphis Police Department in 1920 were Irish and Italian. Even one of the finest, most honest, and most intelligent police chiefs, Joseph Burney (Irish), habitually looked the other way concerning Prohibition. He had more significant law and order issues to deal with in Memphis. Memphis was the cooling-off place for criminals all over the US to escape the “heat.” But thanks to a chance meeting with Chief Burney, the class act of William T Griffith arrived. The hero of our story is William T. Griffin, who was born on 2-27-1879 and died on 3-1-1959.

Griffin launched a new way of doing things. It would be a challenge to change the established Crump Machine and the Police department, which looked the other way regarding Prohibition. In Patrick O’Daniel’s book, Crusaders, Gangsters, and Whiskey, O’Daniel quotes three well-known authors(p.4).

First, in Race, Power, and Political Emergence, Sharon Wright wrote, “Crump soon created a machine which sustained itself on corruption during the age of Prohibition; his administration accepted bribes from brothels, gambling houses, and saloon owners.”

Then, Roger Biles wrote in his book Memphis in the Great Depression, “the necessary funds for the Crump organization materialized in the form of protection payoffs collected from gamblers, prostitutes, and liquor dealers, operating in blatant violation of Tennessee’s prohibitions statutes.”

Finally, Michael K. Honey wrote in his book Going Down the Jericho Road, “Crump built his political machine by collecting money from illegal gambling dens, houses of prostitution, and during Prohibition, illegal liquor joints. The police department was known to involve themselves with an occasional bootlegging operation, although issues other than policing alcohol were more critical.”

Griffin, with his experience, started with changes from the inside out. He spent from 1908 to 1910 as a deputy sheriff; in October 1910, he became a Special Agent Railroad Police Officer until 1919. Police Chief Joseph Burney met him at a law enforcement conference; the rest was history. Chief Burney was so impressed with this man he asked him to join the Memphis Police Department as Chief Inspector of Detectives in 1920.

Over the next ten years, he restructured the division to become much more effective than in many past years. In the past, a police detective was a shabbily dressed, cigar-smoking, rough character. Chief Inspector Griffin sat down with Police Chief Burney, who he answered directly, and soon formulated his new approach to the Detective Division. According to Joe Walk, the late Memphis Police Historian, in his book Memphis Police Highlights and Sidelights, wrote this:

Griffin brought a new approach to how a detective functioned. He told the following to his men; the existing detectives could change their way of acting, return to patrol, or even civilian life. He believed that detectives should command respect. Detectives should dress neatly in what we would call business casual today. Detectives should be educated and articulate; college and high school preferred. Use no profanity, and they should be polite. They could pass for a broker, bond salesman, or businessman if seen on the street. If you saw one of his detectives on the street, you would never know he was a Police Officer. This new style of detective was all about perception. Perception is reality to the public. Inspector Griffin told his officers to be gentlemen first and officers next and that being a gentleman was not detrimental to their effectiveness. Inspector Griffin enforced these standards, and, along with an uncanny ability to investigate hunches, he instilled in these men the will to dissect each lead and work it to exhaustion.

Detective Sgt. Morris Solomon could solve crimes with very few clues. Detective Sgt. John Long and his partner David L Jamison had a high rate of success in arrests through their work in the Pawn Shop Squad. Detective Frank M. Chiozza was the department expert on Burglaries. Detective Sgt. William Raney and his partner Lee Quinathy Jr were the department’s criminal identification and intelligence-gathering experts. They knew every con man, pickpocket, fake promoter, and big-time criminal.

Detective Sgt. John Foppiano was known and feared by criminals throughout the US. He knew the names and faces of hundreds of underworld characters. You did not want him to be on your trail. He would routinely visit Little Rock, Ark., with LRPD Officers to visit hotels and catch several known criminals.

Detective Sgts. Wilbur Miller and Milburn Hinds had great success breaking up bands of robbers. Detective Sgt. W.J. Hendricks was the department expert on forged checks.

Lieutenant Granville Heckle was the department’s expert on safe cracking. Lieutenant Lee Quinathy Senior was second in command and was the department expert on stick-up men and gangsters.

The detectives backing these guys up were Detective Sgt. Sam Phillips, who was the secretary and kept all the files intact and typed the reports. Detective Sgt. Staff included Walter Hoyle, Detective Sgt. Louis A Crosby, Detective Sgt. Thomas Smith, Detective Sgt. Lawrence Fox, Detective Ed Nuismer, and Detective A. I. Conrad. This group of officers was solving 90% of its cases.

The Auto Theft Bureau answers to the Inspector of Detectives but functions as its unit and is commanded by veteran Deputy Inspector Joel Bishop. Lieutenant Clegg Richards, Detective Sgts. Joe Hewitt, Jimmy Taylor, Detectives W.W. Billings, William Hagen, E.E. Wattam, and E. F. Crumby. In 1922 the bureau recovered 66% of all stolen automobiles; in 1923, 79%. And by 1924, 87% recovered from 1924 to 1926, and 88% of autos recovered. And by 1928, the detectives recovered 91% of stolen cars.

Joe Walk, the late Memphis Police Historian, said in his book Memphis Police Highlights and Sidelights, said this: In 1922, after two years working with these fine detectives, Inspector Griffin tapped W.F. Glisson along with three of the best detectives on the job, and the “Murder Squad, aka. Homicide Squad,” was formed. These were four of the department’s best detectives.

Commander William Frank Glisson, who started as a patrolman on August 4, 1921, was promoted in November to Detective and in February 1922 to Sargent. For 15 years, he was Commander of the squad and had 20 years with the department. During his career, he investigated more than 1500 violent deaths.

Lieutenant Paul Nicholas Waggener was second in command. He entered the MPD in 1917 from the Little Rock Police Department and was a nationally known fingerprint expert. Waggener started the Identification Bureau. He taught other Police departments and was a regular presenter at Law Enforcement conferences all over the US.

Detective Sgt. W.W. Carter entered the department in 1917 and was an extremely effective detective. Detective Sgt. J.G. Jim York, regarded as an exemplary police officer, joined the department in 1912 after two years as a Shelby County Correctional Officer and a Deputy Sheriff. He spent his last years driving the Police patrol truck, aka. Black Moriah.

Captain Glisson, expected to respond at all times, had a take-home car to respond to homicides. Captain Glisson instituted the following new methods for his squad working crime scenes.

1.     Detectives will take immediate photographs from all angles of the building and ceiling.

2.     An exact diagram of the entire site, along with adjacent buildings

3.     Plaster of Paris castings made of footprints and tire tracks.

4.     The squad must measure distance and direction at the scene.

5.     The Squads’ records were kept away from the rest of the department in metal, not wooden, filing cabinets with two locks.

6.     Fingerprint everyone connected, including witnesses.

7.     Names of next of kin and others recorded.

8.     All accomplices will require a complete detailed profile.

Chief Inspector Griffin and Captain Glisson had a specific way of investigating homicides. On October 15, 1922, a three-weeknight school for Homicide Detectives was taught by several of Memphis’s most prominent criminal lawyers, federal, and state judges, leading physicians and surgeons, members of the coroner’s office, as well as members of the fire department. Subjects included arson, fraud, different methods of homicide, rules on evidence gathering, how to prepare cases for the grand jury and modern fingerprinting methods. Doctor Willis Campbell headed up a who’s who of local medical doctors who taught the team special lifesaving skills for dealing with attempted suicide, homicides, and auto accidents.


Wright, Sharon, Power and Political Emergence.

Biles, Roger, Memphis in the Great Depression.

The Commercial Appeal, October 5, 1922, pg.12

The Commercial Appeal, October 9, 1942

Memphis Police Department Yearbook, 1924

O’Daniel, Patrick, Crusaders, Gangsters, and Whiskey. pg. 4

Walk, Joe E. Memphis Police Department Some Highlights and Sidelights from The Past,  Memphis Police Historian                  

Commercial Appeal, October 11, 1959 

Commercial Appeal, February 15, 1963, pg. 7


2 thoughts on “Will Griffin: He Brought Class to the Memphis Police Department

  1. Interesting reading some of the names and recognizing them as grandparents of some of the people I knew from high school and later. Obviously Will Griffin lawyer and closing attorney. Milburn Hinds who later became Sheriff Hinds and friends of mom and dad. Sargent John Foppiano whose grandson went to Christen Brothers HS and others Very interesting read. Thanks Joe.

Leave a Reply