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The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America's First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective


Philip Marlowe, Dirty Harry, and even Law & Order—none of these would exist as they do today were it not for the legendary career of nineteenth-century New York City cop Thomas Byrnes.
From 1854 to 1895, Byrnes rose through the ranks of the city’s police department to become one of the most celebrated detectives in American history, and paved the way for modern-day police methods, both good and bad.

During the age of The Gangs of New ...

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Philip Marlowe, Dirty Harry, and even Law & Order—none of these would exist as they do today were it not for the legendary career of nineteenth-century New York City cop Thomas Byrnes.
From 1854 to 1895, Byrnes rose through the ranks of the city’s police department to become one of the most celebrated detectives in American history, and paved the way for modern-day police methods, both good and bad.

During the age of The Gangs of New York, Byrnes tackled the most sensational and high-profile cases in the city and the country. He captured Manhattan’s Jack the Ripper copycat killer; closed the murder case of prostitute Maude Merrill, who was killed by her jealous lover—her own uncle; solved the largest bank heist in American history; arrested anarchist Emma Goldman for inciting a riot in Union Square; and accomplished much more. According to the New York Times, Byrnes “shaped not just the New York City Detective Bureau but the template for detective work . . . in every modern American metropolis.” He not only pioneered crime scene investigation but also perfected the brutal interrogation process called “the third degree.” He revolutionized the gathering of evidence and was the first to use mug shots and keep criminal records. But when Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt investigated the corruption that had plagued the department for decades, the man one prominent journalist had dubbed the “big policeman” was forced to resign.

Bringing the Gilded Age to life as he did in his acclaimed King of Heists, J. North Conway narrates in thrilling, vivid detail the crimes, murders, corruption, and gritty police work associated with the father of the American detective.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Across the sordid tableau of crime, vice, and murder in New York City’s Gilded Age, no figure cut so enduring a path as Thomas Byrnes, the city’s top cop who used brains and brawn in his then-groundbreaking belief that to catch a criminal, one must think like one. J. North Conway has mined the clues and unraveled the mystery of the man behind the headlines, painting a nuanced portrait of the crusader who pioneered law enforcement’s most durable and controversial investigative techniques. Meticulously researched and written like an unusually well-crafted police blotter, The Big Policeman portrays New York’s criminal underground and ambitious lawmen as vividly as any TV drama ripped from the headlines.”

—Greg Campbell, coauthor of Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in

History and author of Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones

“A fascinating, fast-moving account of one of the most polarizing and influential figures of 19th-century New York.  Conway brings ‘the big policeman’ to life.”

 —Daniel Stashower, author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar

Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

“A treasure trove of information not only on larger-than-life pioneering detective Thomas Byrnes but also on law-and-order in wide-open nineteenth-century Manhattan.”

—David Pietrusza, author of Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the

Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series


“The subtitle’s superlatives refer to Thomas Byrnes, a New York City law enforcer whose career peaked in the 1890s as superintendent of the police force…. Creating period atmosphere by quoting extensively from newspaper accounts of the sensational crimes Byrnes solved, Conway portrays his subject’s cleverness and excesses with a flawed-hero flavor that should draw in true-crime fans.”

            —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist


Praise for King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America

“Engrossing . . . Conway skillfully paints a backdrop of fierce and flamboyant personalities who paraded across the Gilded Age, from Brooklyn Bridge engineer John Roebling to Marm Mandelbaum, ‘queen of the criminals.’ . . . [H]e capably recounts his story against a background of glitter and greed.”
Publishers Weekly
“A page-turning account of one of the most brazen crimes of our time.” —Reader’s Digest

“Conway, a college prof and ex-newspaper man, covers this ancient tale in a way that makes it feel like a hot news story.”  - New York Post

Library Journal
Conway (King of Heists) presents the exceptional biography of Thomas Byrnes, who has often been called "the father of modern detective work." The story of his remarkable career is interwoven with many notable 19th-century events. An emigrant from Ireland's potato famine, he survived life in New York's Five Points neighborhood to become an American success story. After fighting in the Union army, he joined New York City's police force days before the 1863 race riots that tore the city apart. His rise through the ranks from policeman to detective is well documented. His methods of solving crimes, such as utilizing photographs to identify criminals and using the "third degree" during interrogations, are among the many contributions he made. As the detective bureau chief, Conway was instrumental in solving many of the sensational crimes of his day, but when caught up in the scandal surrounding Tammany Hall, he retired from the police force and formed his own successful Wall Street detective agency. VERDICT An essential read for those interested in police work, detective stories, and New York City history.—Claire Franek, MSLS, Brockport, NY
Kirkus Reviews

Sensational cases from a legendary New York City detective's career.

Fans of Martin Scorsese'sGangs of New York already have some idea of the environment that gave rise to 19th-century policeman Thomas Byrnes (1842–1910): the poverty-stricken, crime- and vice-ridden Five Points area of Manhattan. Byrnes first drew attention as a young police officer helping to quell the 1863 draft riots. During the course of his 40-year career in the Tammany Hall–dominated city, the Irish immigrant became, thanks in part to a series of admiring popular detective works authored by Julian Hawthorne, a celebrated chief inspector of the Detective Bureau and eventually superintendent of police. Famed for his doggedness and attention to detail, Byrnes pioneered a number of innovative crime-fighting techniques, including the now-commonplace practice of thoroughly investigating a crime scene, keeping extensive records (including mug shots) on the city's notorious criminals, initiating police line-ups, employing rudimentary blood analysis and a crude form of ballistics and compiling statistics on his own Bureau's effectiveness. Making liberal use of period newspaper accounts, coloring pertinent years through a somewhat clunky device he terms "American Almanac," Conway (King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 that Shocked America, 2009, etc.) spotlights a series of high-profile cases featuring Byrnes: prostitute murders, the killing of flamboyant speculator "Jubilee Jim" Fiske, the shooting of a wine merchant, the stalking of financier Jay Gould, the arrest of anarchist Emma Goldman, the robbery at Manhattan Savings and the theft of a millionaire's entombed body. Each case helps explain how the secretive Byrnes developed his revolutionary procedures and how he burnished his reputation by skillful press manipulation and friendship with the city's Wall Street powerbrokers. Conway also frequently remarks on Byrne's penchant for abusive tactics, beating confessions out of suspects and securing questionable convictions. Though never personally linked to corruption, Byrnes presided over a thoroughly rotten department. Muckraking journalists and crusading Rev. Charles Parkhurst helped force his resignation, happily accepted by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt in 1895.

An amusing trifle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781599219653
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/9/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

J. North Conway is the author of nine nonfiction books, including King of Heists: The Sensational Bank Robbery of 1878 That Shocked America (Lyons Press) and American Literacy: Fifty Books That Define Our Culture and Ourselves. He teaches English at Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts Darmouth. 

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1  THE CASE OF JACK THE RIPPER (Chief Detective Thomas Byrnes solved the case of the brutal slaying that prompted the press to speculate that London’s Jack the Ripper had struck in New York City.)

American Almanac 1854 (A selection of social, political, cultural and historical details depicting the tenor of the times are presented in this intercalary chapter.)

Chapter 2  NO IRISH NEED APPLY (The Byrnes family immigrated from Ireland during the Potato Famine and settled into one of New York City’s worst slums, Five Points.)

American Almanac 1863

Chapter 3  NEW YORK CITY UNDER SEIGE (Byrnes distinguished himself as a brave and fearless police officer during the infamous New York City draft riots in the summer of 1863.)

American Almanac 1872

 Chapter 4  THE MURDER OF MAUDE MERRILL (Byrnes solved the sensational murder involving a  fashionable courtesan, Maude Merrill, who was brutally killed in an upscale house of prostitution.)

Chapter 5  THE MURDER OF JUBILEE JIM (Byrnes apprehended the murderer of James Fisk Jr., one the country’s most successful Wall Street financiers.)

American Almanac 1878

Chapter 6  THE GREATEST BANK ROBBERY IN AMERICA (Using gritty detective work, Byrnes tracked down the criminals responsible for robbing close to $3 million from the Manhattan Savings Institution.)

Chapter 7  BAG OF BONES (Byrnes tracked down the grave-robbers who stole the body of millionaire department store magnate, A.T. Stewart.)

American Almanac 1880-1884

Chapter 8  CHIEF OF DETECTIVES (In 1880 Byrnes was promoted to Inspector and took command of  New York City’s detective bureau.  He instituted a series of protocols that modernized the detective bureau including the use of mug shots, police line-ups and the use of undercover detectives to infiltrate criminal gangs.)

Chapter 9  THE CASE OF THE MURDERED WINE MERCHANT (Byrnes  tracked down and apprehended the murderer of New York City wine merchant, Louis Hanier.)

American Almanac 1892-1895

Chapter 10   AN UNSPEAKABLE ROTTENESS (After being appointed Superintendent of the New York City Police Department in 1892, Byrnes faced a series of legislative investigations into police corruption. Although Byrnes was never directly implicated in any corrupt practices, he was forced into retirement in 1895 by Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt when  it was revealed that he had amassed a small fortune on his meager $5,000 yearly salary. Byrnes became an insurance investigator, opening a detective agency on Wall Street and died in 1910.)

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