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 firefighter 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 a captain in 1870.
Byrnes 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.
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 ageing prostitute Carrie Brown 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 weak. 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.