Thomas Byrnes — Rogues' Gallery

A Rogues' Gallery: Thomas Byrnes and Professional Criminals in America

Pages from Professional Criminals in America by Thomas Byrnes, 1886. 2007.35.1. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, D.C.

In 2007, the National Law Enforcement Museum acquired a first edition of Thomas Byrnes’ Professional Criminals in America (1886), a photographic “rogues’ gallery” of known criminals and their techniques and methods. This rare first edition volume gives the reader an intriguing view into the thoughts of a late 19th-century New York City police detective and the criminals he was determined to put away.

Thomas Byrnes (1842-1910) was Chief of the New York City Detective Bureau from 1880–1895.  A native of Ireland, Byrnes immigrated to the U.S. as a boy and became a patrolman in 1863. He established his reputation as a tough, ruthless and efficient  investigator when he broke the 1878 robbery of the Manhattan Savings Bank, recovering millions in cash. He was soon promoted to the New York City Detective Bureau as its first Chief of Detectives and was appointed Superintendent of Police in 1892.

In 19th century America, it was easy to remain an anonymous criminal; if you became known in one town, you moved to another. Byrnes addressed this problem by devising a rogues’ gallery to help identify local criminals. He created a photo gallery of over 7,000 criminals, and he encouraged his detectives to compare the photos with suspects they were seeking. Byrnes’ use of photography to document known criminals helped change the nature of American detective work by accurately documenting criminals’ images, rather than relying on verbal descriptions, physical measurements, or sketch artist images to identify criminals. Byrnes’ rogues’ gallery, he claimed, helped him arrest over 3,000 criminals in New York City in a four year period.

Among Byrnes’ accomplishments was the publication of Professional Criminals in America (1886), a hefty tome that describes the habits, appearance, and techniques used by criminals. He used some of his rogues’ gallery photographs in the book and noted in detail the methods of the most common types of criminals, as well as the physical appearance and criminal habits of those pictured in the book.

Byrnes’ reputation for toughness and ruthlessness made him a figure both revered and reviled in New York City, as one reporter wrote soon after his retirement in 1895.

“We shall not soon have another like him, and that may be both good and bad… He was a Czar, with all an autocrat’s irresponsible powers, and he exercised them as he saw fit. If they were not his, he took them anyhow; police service looks to results first. There was that in Byrnes which made me stand up for him in spite of it all… He was a born policeman.”

Policing has evolved much since the 19th century, and Byrnes’ book helps the Museum explore those changes.

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