A priceless artifact from Berkeley police history, which turned up in a $5 box of books at an estate sale in Texas, will be on public display for the first time ever Sunday at the Berkeley Historical Society.
The artifact is the long lost 14-karat gold, diamond-studded badge of Berkeley’s first police chief, August Vollmer. It was so far gone, in fact, even the department historian was unaware of its existence as a BPD relic. Vollmer has been called “the father of modern policing,” which is the title of a comprehensive new book about him just published this year. The author of that book will speak Sunday, and the badge will be shown alongside Vollmer’s revolver as part of a program at the Berkeley Historical Society museum celebrating the innovative chief’s history. Both items will then go back into the custody of the Berkeley Police Department for safekeeping.
The rediscovery of the badge blindsided a couple from a suburb of Austin, Texas, in August 2015. The story has been somewhat under wraps ever since, until Susan Lyons and her husband, Mark — speaking by phone from Texas — shared that story with Berkeleyside. The couple has worked together, as a side job, for more than a decade selling books on Amazon to help put their four children through college. One day, at an estate sale, they picked up about 200 boxes of high-quality books that appeared to have been hastily slapped together. When they later went through those boxes, they were surprised to come across an old leather case.
“Mark’s going through boxes, and he comes up to me and he goes, ‘Do you think this is worth something?'” recalled Susan. “Me being a woman, I know a diamond when I see it. When he handed it to me and I saw Vollmer’s name on it, we both looked at each other and said: ‘This needs to go home.'”
The extensive library had belonged to a university anthropology professor, who appeared to have been divorced with no children, and the couple said it was clear the company running his estate sale was simply trying to get everything, including the house, sold quickly.
“You normally wouldn’t sell a box of books like these for five dollars,” Mark Lyons said. “I didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes before I said, ‘Well, I want to buy all the books!’ It was just too good a deal.”
Once the couple began going through the boxes, they found random items tossed among the books. There were personal papers, cologne, nail clippers, and more, as if someone had just scooped up whatever was in arm’s reach that needed to be cleared out.
“He kept a lot of things,” said Susan Lyons, of the UT Austin professor, Brian Stross, who died in 2014. “The house was very full.”
Stross’ name was written in his books, which is how the couple identified him as the owner in the first place.
One day, after looking through the boxes for hours, Mark said he came across something different. It was a leather case, the kind someone would flip open to show its contents. It was worn, and clearly old. But the actual badge itself was well preserved other than a tiny bit of writing where the paint had chipped off. The badge is dated 1909, and includes the words “Chief of Police” and “Berkeley, California.” On the front, an eagle hovers over a five-pointed star. On the back, the badge is inscribed to August Vollmer, “Presented by the Police Dept of the City of Berkeley” in July 1909. It’s stamped with a 14-karat gold mark, and was made by a craftsman identified as “G. Owen” in “So. Berkeley.”
“It couldn’t have been a toy. You could tell it was heavy, with a shiny thing in the middle,” Mark remembered. He said he didn’t quite know what to make of the badge, so he walked into the other room to show his wife. She noticed the hand-soldered pin, the way the leather would have been worn on a belt or shirt and, of course, the diamond. They knew they had something special. Being from Texas, they had never heard of Chief Vollmer. But they looked him up online and were amazed to learn his story. Said Susan: “We were just flabbergasted by what this man had done. We just couldn’t wait until the next day to call the police department.”
It had been less than a week since the purchase, so they tried to call the company that held the estate sale. They left one message after another, for several weeks, until the mailbox registered as full. Eventually, the number from the estate sale ad was simply disconnected. No one ever called back.
The couple also emailed Sgt. Michael Holland at the Berkeley Police Department. Holland, who is retired, runs BPD’s historical unit. He called back a few days later and they made arrangements to send the badge back to Berkeley after a flurry of messages to confirm, as much as possible, the authenticity of the item. The couple sent the badge, registered mail, to Berkeley, and it arrived without incident.
“I was so afraid because it was a diamond. I couldn’t wait to get it out of my house,” Susan said. “We just didn’t want to be responsible for a piece of history like that.”
Said Holland, remembering the moment he opened the package: “I felt like I was opening a Christmas and birthday present all rolled into one.” Holland said he had been floored to get the email from Texas about the badge.
“The first thought that came to my mind was: Wow!” he said. In that first email, Lyons described the shield and said she thought, from its markings, it clearly belonged to Vollmer. Holland asked her if she could send some photos to give him a better sense of what she was talking about. “When I actually saw the first image of the badge, I almost jumped out of my seat. I said, ‘Wait a second, I’ve seen that badge before.'”
Holland described a formal photograph of Vollmer (above) in front of a fire truck. He’s wearing a uniform and badge Holland always believed to have been related to Vollmer’s work as a volunteer firefighter. The uniform design did not strike him as police-issue. And the badge wasn’t familiar either. Holland said part of his work as a historian involves making sure any discoveries are valid, accurate and authentic. So Holland took a close look at the photograph from Texas and compared it to the badge in the Vollmer portrait.
“It was, in fact, that badge that Susan had found,” Holland said. “It was instantaneous: I knew it had to be the real thing. There was no doubt in my mind.”
Recalled former Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, who brought the story of the badge to Berkeleyside’s attention, “When Mike Holland first walked into my office to show me the badge he handed it to me and didn’t say anything. I stared at it for a few seconds and the only thing I could say was ‘Holy shit!’ We just could not believe it.”
The revelation was so surprising because they never knew the badge was part of BPD history. Holland thought Vollmer’s seven-pointed star from his town marshal days — now being held by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library — was the only one the chief had carried.
The Berkeley Police Department was created in 1909 when Berkeley officially became a city. The date on the badge — 1909 — suggests it might well have been created for that occasion.
Susan Lyons recalled Holland asking if the couple would be willing to sell the badge back to the department. She thought back to her father, who was a history professor at a junior college. History and genealogy had always been important in her family. Mark’s father, too, had a deep interest in family history. For both, the answer was clear: “This needs to go back to where it belongs,” she said. “This isn’t something you buy. Or sell.”
Added Mark Lyons: “This was a piece of history. We didn’t want to get any money for this. We just wanted to get it in the right place, to be put in context with the history of the area.”
Holland said the couple’s attitude about returning the badge, and asking nothing in return, touched him deeply.
“I was left speechless,” he said. “Because of what it was and what it meant to the department. These were two people who had no knowledge of our agency, or the background. But they looked at something they found — which is of obvious value — and took the time to trace down the potential origin of the shield. They resolved in their own mind that something of this nature and this value and this import deserves to back with the people it’s most important to. They saw the intrinsic value rather than the monetary value.”
As it turns out, the badge was found by a Berkeley jeweler to be worth $3,500. The only thing the couple asked for from BPD, Holland said, was an appraisal for their tax records.
The couple did try to determine how Vollmer’s badge might have ended up in Austin, Texas. Perhaps it traveled there with the prior owner, Professor Brian Stross, a UC Berkeley alum. According to a memorial page for him posted by UT Austin, Stross got his doctorate in anthropology from Cal in 1969. The same year, he moved to Austin and began teaching at UT, with a focus in linguistic anthropology and an interest in “foodways, feasting, and the language systems that applied to foods.” His last book, published in 2013, was called “Lightning in the Andes and Mesoamerica: Pre-Columbian, Colonial, and Contemporary Perspectives.” Stross never left Austin.
According to the website geni.com, Stross didn’t just graduate from Cal. He was also born in Berkeley, the son of Professor Fred Helmut Stross. The elder Stross was a chemist who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1910. The chemist was also listed, in a YouTube video, as a “a long-time Visiting Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory” and a former researcher for Shell. The family had multi-generational roots in the Bay Area. Brian Stross’ grandfather, Consul General Oskar Stross, died in Contra Costa County in 1959.
But, in their research, the couple was not able to find any obvious link between Stross and Vollmer. They thought maybe Stross had picked up the badge at a pawn shop, or happened upon it some other way. They looked through the rest of their boxes, and even reached out to other book dealers who had picked up a few crates Mark hadn’t bought. No one saw anything related to the badge or its story.
Mark and Susan imagined Stross as a college student in Berkeley in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the city’s famed protests. Perhaps he traveled in the jungles of Mexico or Guatemala to do research for his degree. Any possible link to the badge remained elusive.
“Where would he have come across it?” wondered Mark. “We just could never make that connection.”
Vollmer died in 1955 at age 79. He did teach criminal justice at UC Berkeley for a time. Might the badge have ended up on campus and changed hands there? Holland said there was a rumor that a Vollmer relative had relocated to Texas. But he hasn’t been able to verify it.
Said Holland: “That’s the whole mystery right now. It’s definitely a cold case that we still have to do a lot of research on.”
The couple was pleased to learn later, from Holland, that Vollmer’s revolver had also found its way back to the department. (Berkeley Police Chief Andy Greenwood said BPD just officially received the revolver last week, though its location and owner — former Acting BPD Chief Tom Johnson — had been known for some time.) The other badge worn by Vollmer, the tin star he donned as the town marshal after his election to that post in 1905, is in the possession of UC Berkeley, which has declined to allow it to be displayed with the other items, citing security and storage concerns.
Greenwood called the return of the badge from Texas “a fantastic stroke of good fortune and kindness on behalf of the finder. We have an immense sense of gratitude that she saw fit to return it to its rightful place, and an everlasting appreciation of that.”
The Lyonses said they wondered what might have happened if Mark hadn’t bought up all those boxes at the professor’s estate sale, or if they hadn’t noticed that worn leather case: “I’d hate to think this would be at a dump, or Goodwill,” Susan said.
Holland said he had mulled over that very possibility himself.
“If anyone else had bought that little mystery box that Susan and Mark bought, with no clue to its history or meaning, they might have thought it was a trinket or a junk badge. It could have gone in a junk box, or to a jeweler or eBay,” he said. “Who really knows? There are so many variables that could have changed the whole direction of things. If you start thinking about it, your mind kind of goes crazy.”
Vollmer exhibit opens Sunday, April 23
As described by the Berkeley Historical Society: “There stands no greater association between a man and a city than between August Vollmer and the City of Berkeley. The city made the man; the man forever transformed American policing. Having first served as the elected town marshal (1905-1909), when Berkeley became a city, Vollmer became its police chief (1909-1932). During his time with the Berkeley Police Department, Vollmer not only advanced all of American policing through such innovations as the first crime lab and the modern polygraph, but police higher education as well, creating the first criminal justice degree program at the University of California and becoming that discipline’s first professor. For the first half of the 20th century, Berkeley was known the world over as the epicenter of police innovation. Today, it is known as the birthplace of modern American policing. The exhibit will showcase the life of August Vollmer and his close relationship with the city. Berkeley store owner, mail carrier, town marshal, police chief, professor, and regional parks advocate—all attest to Vollmer’s relationship with the city he so dearly loved. How this relationship enabled Vollmer to fundamentally transform American policing will be the focus of this exhibit.”
The Berkeley Historical Society is located at 1931 Center St. The Vollmer exhibit opens Sunday and runs through Sept. 30. There’s a brief annual meeting and election of BHS officers at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in council chambers at Old City Hall. That’s followed by an illustrated talk at 2 p.m. by Willard Oliver, curator and author of “August Vollmer: The Father of American Policing.” At 3 p.m., the exhibit itself will open in the Veterans Memorial Building at the Berkeley History Center, 1931 Center St. Oliver will sign copies of his book, which will be available for purchase ($70). Light refreshments will be served. Admission is free, and both facilities are wheelchair accessible. Learn more on the Historical Society website.