According to the NYPD, Thomas Byrnes, was known as "personification of the
police department." As a captain he had solved the Manhattan Bank burglary, recovering $3 million in stolen cash and securities.
When the Detective Bureau was established in 1882, Byrnes was appointed the first chief of detectives and he was named superintendent
of police in 1892. His considerable personal wealth and the undeniable corruption of the department cast a shadow over his
otherwise distinguished career.”
In 1886, Thomas Byrnes published Professional Criminals of America. According to the book description, it “contains biographical sketches, including photographs, of
some four hundred of the nation’s leading criminals. Each profile details the crimes committed and the circumstances
leading up to arrest and conviction. Also included are shot, informative chapters
on criminal methods, executions, opium addiction, fugitives from justice, and prison commutation laws, along with intriguing
chapters on mysterious unsolved murders, adventurers and adventuresses, and a list of every prison and state penitentiary
in America at the time of publication.”
According to one reader/reviewer, “this book was an attempt to make the
public aware of the lives and practices of "career criminals" in 19th Century America. Byrnes gives an explanation of numerous
criminal professions, such as bank robbers, forgers, con artists, and thieves, as well as sections on opium addiction. The
book contains profiles of more than 200 convicted criminals, including photographs and descriptions of their crimes and capture.
The good inspector's writing style seems to borrow heavily from pulp crime stories of the day; his descriptions are lurid,
yet still sanitized enough to not offend Victorian sensibilities.
While an interesting exploration of the practices of 19th Century criminals
(in case you're interested in pulling off a bogus horse sale or something), the book is more significant as a reflection of
common 19th Century beliefs about origins and practitioners of crime. Inspired by developments in psychology, biology, and
other fields, in the 19th Century there emerged an idea of the 'criminal class' or 'professional criminal', the idea that
there existed an entire underworld class within ordinary society that lived solely by the fruits of their criminal endeavors.
While similar ideas had been posited previously, they reached a new currency (and one might even say obsession) during the
Victorian age. Much of the theories that formed the underpinnings of these questionable notions would go on to inspire much
of the torturous and confused logic of race that would continue to trouble the West throughout the 19th and 20th Century.”