B is for Thomas Byrnes

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.
Thomas F Byrnes

Thomas F Byrnes

Thomas F Byrnes was the celebrated 19th century detective who gave us the expressions  ‘Rogues’ Gallery’ and the ‘Third Degree’ whose reputation was almost undone by his own Jack the Ripper.

Byrnes was born in Dublin in 1842 and emigrated to the US as a child. He grew up in New York and became a skilled gas-fitter until the start of the Civil War when he enlisted with the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry.

On returning from two year’s war service, Byrnes became a fire fighter until he found his true calling when he was appointed a police officer in 1863.

He started as a humble patrolman, but rose through the ranks as a sergeant and then as captain in 1870.

Byrnes' memoirsByrnes made his name by solving the Manhattan Savings Bank Robbery of 1878 which happened on his watch. He took this as a personal affront and tracked down the robbers through gritty detective work. As a result he was appointed detective bureau chief in 1880.

Police work was rather more rough and ready than it is today and Byrnes had a reputation for tough methods, hence the third degree of questioning suspects.

The first degree involved verbal persuasion, the second naked intimidation and the third stage involved physical pain.

New York’s detective force increased from 28 to 40 under Byrnes and the number of arrests doubled. In 1882 he got changes in legislation that gave him complete control of the force.

Rogues' Gallery

Rogues’ Gallery

Byrnes introduced new ideas, such as the Mulberry Street morning parade where arrested suspects were brought before his detectives in the hope that they would be recognised for other crimes.

Photographing suspects was another innovation and one that led to the rogues’ gallery. The photos were published in Professional Criminals of America, a book which described their crimes.

Byrnes was a tremendous self-publicist and in an interview in he was critical of the detectives working on the Whitechapel murders in London claiming it would be impossible for crimes such as Jack the Ripper committed in London to occur in New York without the murderer being caught.

This comment came back to haunt Byrnes when aging prostitute Carrie Brown was was found in a New York hotel having been murdered in a not dissimilar way.

Under pressure, Byrnes accused an Algerian, Ameer Ben Ali, of the crime and he was convicted even though the evidence was very.  The verdict was eventually overturned eleven years later.

In 1895, the new president of the New York City Police Commission and future President Theodore Roosevelt, forced Byrnes to resign as part of his drive to rid the force of corruption.

In later life, Byrnes became an insurance investigator, opening a detective agency on Wall Street, and he died in 1910.

See the New York Press to read more about Thomas Byrnes and the murder of Carrie Brown.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

7 comments… Add yours
  • photowannabe 23rd January 2013

    Very interesting. I had forgotten the details.
    That’s what I like about the blog. I learn so many different things.

  • Roger Green 23rd January 2013

    I did not know the derivation of giving the third degree.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • Leslie 23rd January 2013

    Fascinating life history. I didn’t know about the 1 to 3 degrees of interrogation!

    abcw team

  • Melanie 23rd January 2013

    I’m glad the conviction was eventually overturned for Ameer Ben Ali, but eleven years…

    I’ve never really thought of these police methods as originating with one person. I guess I assumed they evolved over time in a fairly anonymous fashion. Very interesting.

  • Josie Two Shoes 24th January 2013

    Very interesting, I have heard of this man before, but didn’t know much about him. I like learning new bits and pieces of American History, thanks for sharing!

  • Trevor Rowley 24th January 2013

    Mr P, it would be important to know where Mr Ben Ali was while the eleven years were going by until the original conviction was overturned. Hopefully, for him, he wasn’t in the local cemetery.

  • Thai Pudding 27th January 2013

    Ah ha! I spotted the deliberate grammatical error! … “even though the evidence was very.” Very what? Sketchy? Pathetic? Confusing? I shan’t sleep tonight till I find out what the missing word was.


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