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Thomas Byrnes

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1886 Professional Criminals of America
Thomas Byrnes  More Info

About the New York Police Department (NYPD):

The first law-enforcement officer began to patrol the trails and paths of New York City when it was known as New Amsterdam, and was a Dutch settlement and fort in the year 1625. This lawman was known as a "Schout – fiscal" (sheriff – attorney) and was charged with keeping the peace, settling minor disputes, and warning colonists if fires broke out at night. The first Schout was a man named Johann Lampo.


The Rattle Watch was a group of colonists during the Dutch era (1609 - 1664) who patrolled from sunset until dawn. They carried weapons, lanterns and wooden rattles (that are similar to the ratchet noisemakers used during New Year celebrations). The rattles made a very loud, distinctive sound and were used to warn farmers and colonists of threatening situations. Upon hearing this sound, the colonists would rally to defend themselves or form bucket-brigades to put out fires. The rattles were used because whistles had not yet been invented. The Rattle Watchmen also are believed to have carried lanterns that had green glass inserts. This was to help identify them while they were on patrol at night (as there were no streetlights at that time). When they returned to their Watch House from patrol, they hung their lantern on a hook by the front door to show that the Watchman was present in the Watch House. Today, green lights are still hung outside the entrances of Police Precincts as a symbol that the "Watch" is present and vigilant.


When the High Constable of New York City, Jacob Hays retired from service in 1844, permission was granted by the Governor of the state to the Mayor of the City to create a Police Department. A force of approximately 800 men under the first Chief of Police, George W. Matsell, began to patrol the City in July of 1845. They wore badges that had an eight-pointed star (representing the first 8 paid members of the old Watch during Dutch times). The badges had the seal of the City in their center and were made of stamped copper.





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.”


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