This site was created as an experiment in historical research, using as its basis the landmark 1886 book by Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes of the New York Police Department, Professional Criminals of America; and (starting in 2022) his 1895 updated edition, which added many more criminal profiles.
These blog posts revisit those same profiles using genealogical information, government (court and prison) records, and newspaper archives to discover what, if anything, Byrnes missed in his sketches of the most infamous criminals of his age.
Byrnes’s 1886 edition numbered each of its 204 criminal profiles and organized them (roughly) into groups of bank sneaks, forgers, burglars, female thieves, pickpockets, and con artists. Instead of researching these in order, the subject of each blog post was selected randomly. His 1895 edition added 405 more profiles.
Several of the illustrations are reworkings of the “rogue’s gallery” photographs drawn by artist David Birkey. My thanks to David for his willingness to allow their use on this site. Thanks also to Shayne Davidson, who provided good images of the rogues’ gallery photos until I was lucky enough to get a copy of the original 1886 edition. Shayne’s “likes” and comments made a huge difference in helping the project along.
I have not cited my source material, but can provide those on request. I also maintain a public tree on Ancestry.com named Professional Criminals of America used to explore the genealogy of these individuals.
At the project’s onset, I wondered if the result might eventually be converted to book format; but after completing the 204 profiles of the 1886 edition, the sheer bulk of all the text and images likely would require two or three print volumes, and would find a much smaller audience than online. So it will continue online as long as I can afford the hosting fees.
There are ways in which the project could be continued or expanded with research on the notable criminals of the nineteenth century that Byrnes omitted because: their careers ended before 1886, etc.; they were deceased by 1886; they were serving long sentences; they had reformed; or they lacked “mug shots.” As retirement from my day job looms, I may be able to juggle more such projects–but also usually have a (non-criminal-related) book project percolating. For profiles of eighteenth century criminals, I highly recommend Anthony Vaver’s Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic.