Thomas F. Byrnes (1842-1910) was a career police officer in the New York Police Department, serving as Chief Inspector of the Detective Bureau starting in 1880. In 1892, he became the department’s Police Superintendent.
Byrnes’s legacy is decidedly mixed. He was an unapologetic advocate of harsh interrogation techniques, i.e. “the third degree,” a euphemism for the torturing of suspects. That practice did not start with Byrnes, but he went far towards institutionalizing it. The information garnered from these sessions was often of questionable truth.
Byrnes ran the NYPD during the years when it was most corrupt, with his captains regularly demanding and taking payoffs from vice operations and Tammany Hall politicians. Byrnes himself was hard-pressed to account for the massive fortune he accumulated. He was forced out the door by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who had been brought in to reform the department. For several years, Byrnes then ran his own private detective office.
Still, Byrnes embraced methods to track habitual criminals, namely the “rogue’s gallery” of photographs (the use of which pre-dated Byrnes by several decades). In addition to photographs, the department kept records of physical descriptions of criminals and a list of their known crimes and criminal associates. He drew on these, newspaper reports, and hearsay from informers to produce Professional Criminals of America in 1886. It proved to be an immensely popular and influential work. How much of the text was actually written by Byrnes is debatable.
The first section of his book discusses the techniques used by different types of criminals; the main section consists of numbered profiles of professional criminals, many accompanied by 1-2 pages of description. Interspersed in this section are pages showing photos from NYPD’s rogue’s gallery. These photographs were on display in wall mounted cases in the Central Station.
Byrnes’s profiles of criminals was limited to the NYPD’s records and the memories of its officers; they did not have access to the records of other police departments, nor did they employ a clipping service to track national newspapers. The profiles are primarily limited to activities from the late 1870s through to 1886. Byrnes revised his 1886 edition in 1895; however, in expanding the material, he abridged many of the original entries. I have chosen to work mainly from the earlier 1886 edition.
This site is intended to 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.