Inspector Thomas Byrnes: 19th-century American Policeman

Inspector Thomas Byrnes was an Irish-born American police officer who served as head of the New York City Police Department from 1880 until 1895. He was born in Dublin, Ireland on 15 June 1842 to James and Rose Byrnes, and he immigrated to the United States while he was a child. He had a limited education and trained to be a gas fitter before he joined with Union forces during the American Civil War in 1861, enlisting with Elmer E. Ellsworth’s “Zouaves.”

inspector thomas byrnes in 1886

Inspector Thomas Byrnes in 1886. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Zouaves had first appeared in Algeria in 1831 and were initially recruited in the French Army primarily from the Zouaoua (or Zwāwa), a tribe of Berbers located in the mountains of the Jurjura Range. From the beginning, the Zouave units included a French European element that was initially drawn from Parisian volunteers and the demobilized Garde Royal of King Charles X, brother to Louis XVI. However, a few years later the Zouaves became essentially a French body.

Goslin Zouave, 95th Regt, Pv by Xanthus Russell Smith, 1861. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the American Civil War soldiers began to adopt the name of Zouaves and began to wear the North African-inspired uniforms. However, they became well-known because of Ellsworth. He had been inspired to obtain a drill manual because of what he learned from a French friend who had served as a surgeon in the North African Zouaves while in the French army. Ellsworth learned:

“Zouaves … utilized light infantry tactics that emphasized open-order formations, with several feet between soldiers, rather than the customary close order, with its characteristic ‘touch of elbows’. They moved at double-time, rather than marching to a stately cadence, and they lay on their backs to load their rifles rather than standing to do so. To fire, they rolled prone and sometimes rose on one knee.”[1]

When Ellsworth took over a drill company, he renamed them the “Zouave Cadets.” They toured nationally, performing the light infantry drill of the north African Zouaves with many theatrical additions. This resulted in the idea of Zouaves becoming popular and like groups were raised on both sides during the American Civil War, that include the regiment under Ellsworth’s command, the New York “Fire Zouaves.”

inspector Thomas Byrnes - Elmer E. Ellsworth

Elmer E. Ellsworth. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1863, when Thomas Byrnes’ enlistment was up and he finished serving as Zouave, he joined the New York Metropolitan Police force. His time in the military and his service as a Zouave helped him rise rapidly upward. He became a first-level supervisor, a sergeant, and then a captain between 1868 and 1870.

He was again promoted in 1880 when he began serving as an inspector and head of the detective bureau. This promotion was because he solved the Manhattan Bank robbery case that occurred on 28 October 1878. It was a notable robbery where the watchman was chloroformed, the safe blown open, and nearly three million in bonds stolen. It appeared to be the perfect crime because the robbers left almost no clues other than a shovel and an extinguished lantern.

Despite the whole New York police force being “on the job” and working to catch the thieves, Byrnes was the policeman tasked with solving the crime, capturing the guilty parties, and throwing them in jail. Pressure was intense that the case be solved and despite great effort on his part, the case was not cracked quickly enough for the public. Before long newspapers were stating that the Manhattan Bank robbery seemed “relegated to the limbo of forgotten crimes.”[2] Newspapers also began reporting on what inspector Thomas Byrnes was doing to locate the robbers and solve the case with The Cincinnati Enquirer stating:

“Captain Byrnes in whose precinct the ill-fated saving institution is located, has been indefatigable in his endeavors to apprehend the criminals. His ardor in this direction led him astray in the case of two other ‘gentlemen of the fraternity,’ whom he succeeded in capturing but who led him a lively dance through the slums of Jersey … Whether he has succeeded or not in the present case remains to be demonstrated … His constant investigation of the bank burglary placed in his possession certain valuable data which gave him an important clew regarding the identity, if not the whereabouts of the robbers. From this partial description given of the cracksmen his suspicions were aroused that certain well known criminals, whose antecedents are matter of public record, were the principals in the job. He had in his mind two men in particular, who, if found, would in all probability supply the missing link, the chain of evidence, and lead to the apprehension of the whole gang of robbers. … Captain Byres said last night that while he was in possession of important information which would go to crimininate the prisoners, he did not think it proper to make it known until such time as they were arraigned in Court.”[3]  

Ultimately, inspector Thomas Byrnes did solve the case. He tracked the gang members down one by one and prevented the robbers from benefiting from their crime. According to the papers:

“The number and character of the bonds had been sent out to every bank in the land, and all of the police departments had been notified, so that whenever an attempt was made to negotiate them the person trying to do so was placed under arrest The affair was so long drawn out that it was lacking the dramatic qualities of some other criminal cases, but the fact remains that the big bit of work was performed by Byrnes.”[4]

When the case was solved it was also learned the heist involved three years of planning. Moreover, the person financing the scheme was woman named Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum, a fence who always had warehouses full of stolen merchandise and operated a dry goods store on Clinton Street. She controlled several gangs of blackmailers and confidence men and she operated a school, known as Marm’s Grand Street School, to recruit and teach younger criminals how to pickpocket.

Fredericka “Marm” Mandelbaum. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Her crew consisted of several well-known criminals. There was Shang Draper, a common thief and a saloon owner, and Red Leary, who served as the gang’s muscle and was noted to have an explosive hair trigger temper. Also involved in the robbery was George Leonidas Leslie, dubbed “the King of Bank Robbers.” He was an architect who came from a wealthy family, and he was the person who devised and planned the Manhattan Bank robbery. He had also invented a safe-cracking tool called “the little joker.” It was a wire device that when placed behind the safe’s dial in advance of the robbery left dents on the wire thereby recording the combination numbers that unlocked it.

Despite having planned the greatest bank robbery in American history, Leslie did not participate in it. His dead body was discovered several months earlier on 4 June 1878 at Tramp’s Rock, outside of Yonkers, New York. He had been shot in the head and heart. Apparently, Draper and Leary learned he had been having an affair with their wives and they dispensed their own form of justice.

As a police inspector Thomas Byrnes quickly became known as a formidable opponent of criminals. For instance, he instituted what became known as the “Mulberry Street Morning Parade.” It begin in 1886 and involved a daily line-up of recently arrested suspects taken from their cells and paraded in front of detectives. The object was for detectives to link the suspects paraded before them to other crimes.

The same year the Mulberry Street Morning Parade was instituted was also the same year that Byrnes’ book Professional Criminals of America was published, ostensibly to help fight crime although it did more to bolster Byrnes reputation as a crime fight. It contained over 200 photographs of “dangerous criminals” to form what Byrnes called a “public Rogues’ Gallery,” or in other words a photo gallery of criminals. In addition, he provided detailed criminal information about bank burglaries, mysterious murders, and notable forgeries.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes book showing rogues' gallery

Page from Inspector Thomas Byrnes’ book “Professional Criminals of America.” Public domain.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes was inventive and tough. He practiced and encouraged both physical and psychological punishment of those arrested to get to the truth. This brutal line of questioning became known as the “third degree,” an expression that Byrnes himself used. Nonetheless opponents claimed that his third degree tactics were illegal and resulted in confessions by unwilling prisoners. Despite critics, the American press characterize him in the following manner:

“He knows the methods and characteristics of ‘crooks’ and possesses a thorough knowledge of their haunts. When in pursuit of criminals he exhibits unerring sagacity and unwearying persistence that sooner or later brings the fugitives to justice. … Before Inspector Byrnes took charge of the detective department, Wall Street and its vicinity had been infested by gangs of bank-thieves, forgers, and pickpockets, who had for years carried on their nefarious operations and found it a fertile field. Bank-messengers were knocked down and plundered, tin boxes, filled with securities were snatched from the hands of elderly gentlemen, and piles of greenbacks were grasped at bank counters, where those who had just receive the money were ascertaining if the count of the cashier was correct.”[5]

Inspector Thomas Byrnes interrogating a suspect. Author’s collection.

Byrnes’ criminalist tactics helped make him famous too and he was considered a nationwide sensation by 1890 because of his ability to extract confessions and solve crimes. People throughout America knew of him, just like people in France knew of Eugène François Vidocq, who is considered the first private detective and operated from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte into the 1840s. In addition, just like Vidocq inspired stories by Victor Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, and Honoré de Balzac, Byrnes’ third degree technique was popularized in a series of novels written by his friend Julian Hawthorne, son of the famous American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Although Byrnes was famous, he became even more of a hero in 1891 when the financier Russell Sage, counterpart to the female businesswoman Hetty Green, was attacked. The incident involved a bizarre bombing in early December at Sage’s office. According to Sage:

“Shortly after 12 o’clock yesterday a man whom I had never seen before entered my office. He carried a large satchel and gave the name of W.H. Wilson. He inquired for me and demanded that I give him $1,000,000. I tried to talk with him, but he became excited and opening the valise he took from it along bottle and threw it at my head. I dodged the missile and it struck the opposite wall and instantly exploded. There was a fearful crash and I was thrown out of my chair. I do not remember much more about the affair.”[6]

Russell Sage. Author’s collection.

What the bomber threw was a dynamite bomb. It destroyed the interior of the office and outside the building there was mass confusion as rumors ran wild that several heads had been blown off. Police were notified and quickly arrived in force at the scene. When they entered the building, just inside the door they found the trunk of a man with his severed head lying nearby having been detached during the blast. They also found Sage unconscious on the floor. In addition, during the incident Sage was also accused of having used a bank clerk named William R. Laidlaw as a human shield to protect himself. The clerk later sued Sage and although a legal battle dragged on and he was awarded winning $43,000 in damages after four trials, Sage never paid him a dime despite Sage being worth an estimated 70 million dollars.

After the bombing, Byrnes was tasked with determining the identity of “Wilson,” who quickly became dubbed in the press the “dynamite crank.” Word was that he was a 45-year-old escaped lunatic and native of Glenn’s Falls of Warren County, but it was determined a week later that he was an ordinary office worker named Henry L. Norcross. Moreover, it was reported that Byrnes took the grisly severed head in a basket to Sage’s bedroom where he was recuperating to ensure a proper identification of the bomber.

Another interesting case that inspector Thomas Byrnes was tasked with solving was linked to the Jack the Ripper cases, a series of brutal murders of women in the largely impoverished areas in and around the Whitechapel district in 1888. When the Ripper cases went unsolved, Byrnes publicly criticized London officials. Three years later, in 1891, he was faced with a similar situation when a middle-aged prostitute named Carrie Brown was murdered and mutilated in a similar fashion that resembled the victims in the Ripper cases.

Publicity was intense and there was great pressure for inspector Thomas Byrnes to solve Brown’s murder. Scrutiny ended when he accused an Algerian named Ameer Ben Ali, nicknamed Frenchy, of having committed the crime. Frenchy was arrested in the saloon of the same hotel where the murder occurred. Five days later Dr. Cyrus Edson, head of the city’s Sanitary Bureau and Chief Inspector of Diseases, announced:

“Inspector Byrnes, to my mind, is the greatest detective that ever lived. He has worked unceasingly, night and day, on this theory since the murder was found out, and the way in which he has ferreted out and followed every straw that pointed a way to the end is something simply marvellous. Out of the muddle of utter confusion, without bottom or any single apparent fact to it, he has shaped in my sight an awful arraignment of the murderer, which he can never escape. … Frenchy occupied a room on the same floor as that in which the murder was committed. He had been acquainted with the murdered woman. Blood stains were on his shirt and on the mattress of his room. … He is a peculiar being. We examined him, and I concluded that he was an imbecile.”[7]  

The evidence against Frenchy was largely circumstantial. Byrnes had also ruthlessly applied his third degree tactics that critics later said resulted in a false confession by the accused. There was also other evidence against Ben Ali. For instance, there were claims that he had blood on his clothing and hands and that bloodstains led from the victim’s room to his. However, reporters at the scene maintained that they never saw any such trail of blood. There were also claims made my doctors against Frenchy that he was the murderer but their accusations could not be supported at the time.

Despite the lack of evidence, Ben Ali was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The verdict did not sit well with certain reformers. They argued that there was misconduct throughout the investigation by Byrnes, which included his third degree tactics. They also pointed to evidence that supported Ben Ali’s claims that he was innocent. Witnesses had also said Brown had been seen with an unidentified man who was never located, and there was also a missing room key crucial to the case that was never located.

Titled “An Old Saying Twisted” shows Peter B. Olney, N.Y. District Attorney, passing a paper that states “Charges Against the Central Office Detectives – Peter B. Olney, Dist. Att’y” over the head of Fredericka Mandelbaum to Thomas Byrnes at police headquarters, who in turn is passing to Olney a paper that states “Denial of Charges – Insp’r. Byrnes”. In the background is a small building labeled “Mrs. Mandelbaum Receiver of Stolen Goods” on which a notice has been posted that states “Mortgage – To Cover Bail and Costs of Trial.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Although inspector Thomas Byrnes might have fingered Frenchy as the murderer, his stellar reputation as a crime fighter was about to dissolve. During his time in office he earned about $5,000 a year but had somehow acquired a fortune that amounted to $350,000. His critics claimed he had gotten by corrupt means, but when questioned about his wealth, he maintained friends on Wall Street had given him stock tips. There was no clear evidence that he broke the law, but his days were numbered. In 1895, the new president of the New York City Police Commission, the future President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, compelled him to resign as part of his drive to rid the force of corruption.

A few years later Frenchy’s case came again to the forefront in the news. It was claimed that the missing key and a bloody shirt had been found by a New Jersey man in a room he had rented to an unidentified man and that they man had disappeared shortly after the murder. That testimony along with the fact that Byrnes was removed for corruption and the longstanding belief that Ben Ali was not guilty and had been set up, resulted in Frenchy being pardoned and released after serving 11 years.

After inspector Thomas Byrnes resigned from the police force, he went on to become an insurance investigator and then he opened his own detective agency on Wall Street. He died from stomach cancer on 7 May 1910, at his home. Some newspapers declared him to be the best “copper” of his day. His funeral was held at 10:00am on Tuesday 10 May with high mass given at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, 71st Street and Broadway. He was then interred in the Calvary cemetery.


  • [1] S. E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (New York: Vintage, 2006), p. 16–17.
  • [2] G. Barton, “Master Strokes of Great Detectives,” Salt Lake Telegram, February 11, 1931, p. 5.
  • [3] The Cincinnati Enquirer, “Copped Cracksmen,” December 16, 1878, p. 5.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] H. Campbell, Darkness and Daylight; Or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (Hartford: A. D. Worthington & Company, 1892), p. 519–20.
  • [6] The Fort Scott Weekly Tribune, “The Maniac,” December 10, 1891, p. 1.
  • [7] The Evening World, “Is He Guilty?,” May 5, 1891, p. 1.

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