Born in Dublin, Ireland, Byrnes joined the NYPD in 1863. When the New York City draft riots broke out that same year, he conducted himself with such courage and tenacity that his superiors took notice. Over the years his bravery and resourcefulness won him accolades and promotions. He was appointed chief of the Detective Bureau in 1880 and soon became the most powerful policeman in the city, revered by the Wall Street financiers whose assets he personally protected and feared by the criminals whom he systematically set out to ruin.
Byrnes was the bane of New York’s netherworld. He compiled the Rogue’s Gallery, a mug shot portfolio presented to witnesses and victims of crime for identification purposes, and perfected the physical and psychological torture known as the ‘Third Degree’. In 1886 he instituted a ‘Mulberry Street Morning Parade’ of suspected criminals before his detectives so that they could remember the arrestees’ faces and connect them with future crimes. That same year, he published a book, Professional Criminals of America. Author Julian Hawthorn found him so inspiring that he made Byrnes the subject of a series of crime fighter novels.
Byrnes usually got his man (or woman). If evidence was too circumstantial to support a future conviction, he conned confessions out of suspects via mental gimmickry that played on their fears and suspicions. When mind games or verbal intimidation failed, he cheerfully resorted to the Third Degree. Once the cases went to trial Byrnes, who kept the press in the dark whenever he was on unstable ground, reframed events to make himself look like a hero. Jacob Riis, who was a police reporter for the New York Sun, acknowledged his superior detective skills and called him the "big policeman".
Although he acted like a dedicated public guardian, Byrnes was actually corrupt. His salary averaged less than $5,000 a year, but he managed to bank over $350,000, which suggests that he accepted bribes from those who subverted the law. When questioned about this fortune in 1894 by the Lexow Committee, a probe into NYPD corruption, he attributed it to successful land speculation in Japan and good investment advice from grateful Wall Street financiers. Among those who received this explanation skeptically was Theodore Roosevelt, who became president of the New York City Police Commission in 1895 and compelled Byrnes to resign.
The “Big Policeman” took advantage of his city-wide fame and valuable contacts to open his own successful detective agency on Wall Street, and died in luxury in 1910.
The Big Policeman is an absorbing read, because it contains all the salient details of Byrnes’ most notorious cases. Conway also does a nice job of creating period atmosphere by itemizing other interesting historical events that occurred during the investigations. But there’s surprisingly little said about the shadow side of Byrnes’ police career: the bribes he almost certainly took, and the payments he must have made in turn for his promotions, as insiders admitted that advancement in the NYPD was rarely accomplished on merit alone. While Byrnes is not exactly presented as a paragon of civic virtue, he did have serious ethical flaws (besides tricking and beating suspects!) that should have been thoroughly documented in a book dedicated to his life and exploits.
That said, I enjoyed The Big Policeman and recommend it to those who fascinated by the darker history of Gilded Age New York.