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Thomas F. Byrnes
Born 1842
Dublin, Ireland
Died 1910 (aged 67–68)

Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes (1842–1910) was head of the New York City Detective Bureau from 1880 until 1895.


Born in Dublin, Ireland to James and Rose Byrnes, he emigrated to New York as a child. He worked as a skilled gas-fitter until the start of the Civil War. He enlisted with Elmer E. Ellsworth's "Zouaves" in 1861 and served two years with that unit. After his service, Byrnes became a firefighter, joining Hose Company No. 21 in New York City. He remained as a firefighter until December 10, 1863, when he was appointed a police officer.[1]

File:Insignia of 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.jpg

Insignia of Byrnes' regiment, the 11th N.Y (1861)

Byrnes rose in the ranks, first as a patrolman, then becoming a sergeant in 1869 and a captain in 1870. He gained renown through solving the Manhattan Savings Bank robbery of 1878. He became Detective Bureau chief in 1880.[2]

As inspector, Byrnes quickly won national distinction. He increased the detective force from twenty-eight to forty men. In four years it made 3,300 arrests. In 1882, he obtained legislative approval of changes in the department which gave him immense power. In 1886, Byrnes instituted the "Mulberry Street Morning Parade" of arrested suspects before the assembled detectives in the hope they would recognize suspects and link them to more crimes. Also that year, his book Professional Criminals of America[3] was published. He built up a book of photographs of criminals, which he called the "Rogues Gallery".

File:Bandit's Roost by Jacob Riis.jpeg

A dangerous[citation needed] Mulberry Street back alley, photographed by Jacob Riis in 1888, was the kind of environment Byrnes was in charge of policing.

Byrnes' brutal questioning of suspected criminals popularized the term "the third degree",[4], which was apparently coined by Byrnes.[citation needed] From the descriptions, the third degree as practiced by Byrnes was a combination of physical and psychological torture.[5] Jacob A. Riis, who as police reporter for the New York Sun knew Byrnes well, declared that he was "a great actor", and hence a great detective. Riis called him an unscrupulous "big policeman" and a veritable giant in his time.[citation needed]

Despite the advances he brought to the police force, there is little doubt that Byrnes was corrupt. On a salary of $2,000 a year, he built a fortune of over $350,000, which he attributed to sound investment advice from his Wall Street patrons.

In 1891, three years after publicly criticizing London police officials on the way they handled the Jack the Ripper investigations, Byrnes was faced with a similar crime in New York. Amid mammoth publicity, Byrnes accused an Algerian, Ameer Ben Ali (nicknamed Frenchy) of the crime. He was convicted despite the evidence against him being doubtful, but he was pardoned eleven years later.[6]

In 1895, the new president of the New York City Police Commission, Theodore Roosevelt, compelled him to resign as part of Roosevelt's drive to rid the force of corruption.[7]

In later life, Byrnes became an insurance investigator, opening a detective agency on Wall Street. At his death he was survived by his wife Ophelia and five daughters.

In fiction[]

Byrnes was featured as a fictional character in Jack Finney's time travel novel, Time and Again, and has now and then been a character in other historical novels. In addition, he was a character in the juvenile detective series, Broadway Billy, as well as a number of other detective "dime novels". His name appeared as the author on the fictional turn-of-the-century true-crime novel "The Bone Collector" which was featured in the film "The Bone Collector" starring Angelina Jolie.


  1. History of the New York Fire Department, Ch. 32, Part II
  2. New York Press - William Bryk
  3. Byrnes, Thomas. 1886. Professional Criminals of America. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969.
  5. XIII. Roosevelt comes—Mulberry Street’s Golden Age. Riis, Jacob A. 1901. The Making of an American
  6. Wolf Vanderlinden, “The New York Affair” Ripper Notes -- part one issue 16 (July 2003); part two #17 (January 2004)[1], part three #19 (July 2004 ISBN 0975912909)
  7. Investigative Historical Timeline