Thomas Byrnes became one of the most famous crime fighters of the late 19th century by supervising the newly created detective division of the New York Police Department. Known for his relentless drive to innovate, Byrnes was widely credited for pioneering the use of modern police tools such as mugshots.
Byrnes was also known to get very rough with criminals, and openly boasted of having invented a harsh interrogation technique he called “the third degree.” And though Byrnes was widely lauded at the time, some of his practices would be unacceptable in the modern era.
After attaining widespread celebrity for his war on criminals, and becoming chief of the entire New York Police Department, Byrnes came under suspicion during corruption scandals of the 1890s. A famous reformer brought in to clean up the department, future president Theodore Roosevelt, forced Byrnes to resign.
It was never proven that Byrnes had been corrupt. But it was evident that his friendships with some of the wealthiest New Yorkers helped him amass a large fortune while receiving a modest public salary.
Despite ethical questions, there is no question Byrnes had an impact on the city. He was involved with solving major crimes for decades, and his police career aligned with historic events from the New York Draft Riots to well-publicized crimes of the Gilded Age.
Early Life of Thomas Byrnes
Byrnes was born in Ireland in 1842 and came to America with his family as an infant. Growing up in New York City, he received a very basic education, and at the outbreak of the Civil War he was working at a manual trade.
He volunteered in the spring of 1861 to serve in a unit of Zouaves organized by Col. Elmer Ellsworth, who would become famous as the first great Union hero of the war. Byrnes served in the war for two years, and returned home to New York and joined the police force.
As a rookie patrolman, Byrnes showed considerable bravery during the New York Draft Riots in July 1863. He reportedly saved the life of a superior officer, and recognition of his bravery helped him rise in the ranks.
In 1870 Byrnes became a captain of the police force and in that capacity he began investigating noteworthy crimes. When the flamboyant Wall Street manipulator Jim Fisk was shot in January 1872, it was Byrnes who questioned both victim and assassin.
The fatal shooting of Fisk was a front-page story in the New York Times on January 7, 1872, and Byrnes received prominent mention. Byrnes had gone to the hotel where Fisk lay wounded, and took a statement from him before he died.
The Fisk case brought Byrnes into contact with an associate of Fisk, Jay Gould, who would become one of the richest men in America. Gould realized the value of having a good friend on the police force and he began feeding stock tips and other financial advice to Byrnes.
The robbery of the Manhattan Savings Bank in 1878 attracted enormous interest, and Byrnes received nationwide attention when he solved the case. He developed a reputation for possessing great detective skill, and was placed in charge of the detective bureau of the New York Police Department.
The Third Degree
Byrnes became widely known as “Inspector Byrnes,” and was viewed as a legendary crime fighter. The writer Julian Hawthorne, the son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, published a series of novels billed as being “From the Diary of Inspector Byrnes.” In the public mind, the glamorized version of Byrnes took precedence over whatever the reality might be.
While Byrnes did indeed solve many crimes, his techniques would certainly be considered highly questionable today. He regaled the public with tales of how he coerced criminals into confessing after he outwitted them. Yet there’s little doubt that confessions were also extracted with beatings.
Byrnes proudly took credit for an intense form of interrogation he termed “the third degree.” According to his account, he would confront the suspect with the details of his crime, and thereby trigger a mental breakdown and confession.
In 1886 Byrnes published a book entitled Professional Criminals of America. In its pages, Byrnes detailed the careers of notable thieves and provided detailed descriptions of notorious crimes. While the book was ostensibly published to help fight crime, it also did much to bolster the reputation of Byrnes as America’s top cop.
By the 1890s Byrnes was famous and considered a national hero. When the financier Russell Sage was attacked in a bizarre bombing in 1891, it was Byrnes who solved the case (after first taking the bomber’s severed head to be identified by the recuperating Sage). Press coverage of Byrnes was typically very positive, but trouble lay ahead.
In 1894 the Lexow Commission, a New York State government committee, began investigating corruption in the New York Police Department. Byrnes, who had amassed a personal fortune of $350,000 while earning a police salary of $5,000 a year, was questioned aggressively about his wealth.
He explained that friends on Wall Street, including Jay Gould, had been giving him stock tips for years. No evidence was ever made public proving Byrnes had broken the law, but his career came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1895.
The new head of the board which oversaw the New York Police Department, future president Theodore Roosevelt, pushed Byrnes out of his job. Roosevelt personally disliked Byrnes, whom he considered a braggart.
Brynes opened a private detective agency which gained clients from Wall Street firms. He died of cancer on May 7, 1910. Obituaries in the New York City newspapers generally looked back nostalgically on his glory years of the 1870s and 1880s, when he dominated the police department and was widely admired as “Inspector Byrnes.”