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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Thomas J. Byrnes: The Father of the Third Degree

     The history of American criminal investigation does not begin with thinking detectives inspired by the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, but with a police detective who achieved fame and success by acquiring confessions through rubber hose brutality referred to as the "third degree." Although Thomas J. Byrnes is not as familiar today as the nineteenth century private investigator, Allan Pinkerton, it was Byrnes who set the stage for decades of institutionalized police brutality in the United States. It was Byrnes who practiced interrogation techniques that decades later produced the U. S. Supreme Court's Miranda decision. (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966)

     A Civil War veteran living in New York City, Byrnes joined the police department in 1863. Following a brief stint as a patrolman, the smart and ambitious young man got promoted into the newly formed detective bureau where he quickly made a name for himself. In 1880, two years after grabbing headlines for solving a $3 million Manhattan bank burglary, Byrnes, now a captain, took charge of the detective bureau made up of two sergeants and fourteen investigators. With thirty thousand professional thieves and 2,000 gambling dens, New York, one-third the size of London, had three times the crime. Businessmen in the Wall Street district, overrun by sneak-thieves, forgers, pickpockets, and burglars, turned to Byrnes for help. The police captain responded by putting out the word, through a network of paid informants and other law enforcement contacts, that any thief caught south of his infamous Dead Line would be sent to Blackwell's Island for a severe beating; a threat Byrnes carried out with precision and joy until the thieves, having received the message, stayed out of the financial district. The tycoons of Wall Street showed their gratitude by making Captain Byrnes one of the wealthiest police detectives in history. 

     Byrnes, as much a businessman as police detective, found other sources of income. During his tenure as Captain of Detectives, he followed the standard policing practice of ignoring, for a price, the city's gambling establishments, brothels, and opium dens. One the New York's most notorious madams paid $30,000 a year in police bribes.

     As an investigator, Byrnes, in addition to employing a stable of paid, confidential informants, would let lesser criminals off the hook in return for evidence against the bigger fish. He taught his detectives how to identify criminals, particularly safe-crackers and other signature offenders, through their individualistic crime scene techniques--their so-called methods-of-operation, or M.O. The use of informants, criminal intelligence, and M.O. were tactics pioneered by Allan Pinkerton, the only investigator in the country more famous than Byrnes.

     It is not surprising that Byrnes, as an ambitious, publicity-seeking detective working in an era before judicial restraints on police behavior, adapted, as his principal investigative technique, the coerced confession. From a brutally pragmatic point of view, the beauty of the third degree was that it was not necessary, in the acquisition of a confession, to be interrogating the guilty party. By being the first to publicize the fact he would do whatever it took to get a confession, Byrnes established police brutality as a standard operating procedure, making himself the unofficial father of the third degree. For the next fifty some years, until the U. S. Supreme Court in1936 specifically excluded confessions extracted from physically abused prisoners, the third degree became the staple of criminal investigation in America. While Brown v. Mississippi didn't end police brutality, it marked the start of a new era in criminal investigation. However, Byrnes' ghost would inhabit, in varying degrees, interrogation rooms across the country throughout the Twentieth Century.

     Although he worked in the era before the advent of crime statistics--annual crime rates, case clearance percentages and such--Byrnes used statistics, figures no less reliable that their modern counterparts, as indices of success. At one point in his career Byrnes claimed credit for 3,300 arrests leading to an accumulated ten thousand year prison sentence. There was no telling what percentage of the men he put behind bars were innocent of the crimes charged. Aware that the investigative reputation of Scotland Yard exceeded that of his own department, Byrnes, in the wake of the 1888 serial killings of five prostitutes in East London, challenged Jack-the-Ripper to ply his trade in New York. When a gutted female corpse washed up on the New York side of the Hudson River shortly after Byrnes' bravado, there was serious concern that the ripper had taken up his challenge. As it turned out, that murderer was not Jack-the-Ripper.

     Thomas Byrnes reached the peak of his fame in 1886 with the publication of a book, under his name, called Professional Criminals of America. The massive work contained the mug shots and detailed criminal histories of four-hundred of the city's most active house burglars, safe-crackers, pickpockets, check forgers, and con artists. Reprinted for the first time in 1969, it is considered a classic work in the history of property crime in America.

     In 1892, a crusading Presbyterian minister in New York City named Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst launched a religious crusade to clean up vice in the city and to expose the police corruption that allowed it to exist. The crusade led to political hearings headed by a New York state senator named Lexow. In 1894, Byrnes, now a police superintendent, was called before the Lexow Committee to explain how he, a public servant, had become so wealthy. As a result of the highly publicized hearings, the mayor resigned and a handful of patrolmen were indicted on charges of bribery. Byrnes, and several other police bigwigs were simply forced to resign.

     After leaving the force in 1895 the 54-year-old father of the third degree took a high paying job as general manager of an insurance company. The Lexow politicians, having enjoyed the limelight, left town, and the moment they did, the corruption and vice returned.

     In America the ward and watch system of policing evolved into a better organized more efficient system of bribe giving and receiving. For the next sixty to seventy years American law enforcement would be plagued by corruption and brutality. In the late 1800s, D. J. Cook, the superintendent of the Rocky Mountain Detective Association who had been a sheriff and a deputy U.S. marshal, issued words of wisdom applicable to his time and a generation of future cops: "Never hit a prisoner over the head with your pistol because you may afterwards want to use your weapon and find it disabled."

     In 1910, the week before he died at age 69, Thomas Byrnes transferred to his wife a Fifth Avenue building worth a half-million dollars. Two years later, the lawyer-writer Arthur Train, in his best-selling book, Courts and Criminals, described the status of criminal investigation some seventy years following the formation of the New York City Police Department: "The detective business swarms with men of doubtful honesty and morals who are accustomed to exaggeration if not to perjury, and who have neither the inclination nor the ability to do competent work."


  1. Great post. Informative. Do you happen to know of any documentaries about Thomas Byrnes...beside the brief thing done about him in episode 7 of America: The Story of Us?

    1. I do not, Andrew. Thank you for your comment.