An Interview With Inspector Byrnes

The following interview with Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes (1842 – 1910) – an Irish born American police officer, who was head of the detectives at the New York City Police Department from 1880 to 1895 – appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette on Thursday, August 29th, 1889:-


“For the safety and decency of its streets at night New York is a long way ahead of London. The streets of New York are as respectable at midnight as at noon. The police act with promptitude and firmness in New York when they commence a campaign, except when asked to enforce Sunday Closing. On this subject, they waver a good deal.

In quelling street disturbances they use their clubs with a freedom that would have satisfied Warren on Bloody Sunday. They always exhibit their clubs, and generally swing them about in a menacing sort of way. One variety of the clubs is about the size of a London bobby’s truncheon, but another species is a heavy skull-cracking shillelagh, which could be walloped about in a crowd like a flail.

New York is the receptacle of some rough emigrants from Europe, and the appearance – to say nothing of the touch – of these weapons has a civilizing effect on them.

But New York remains safe from all the hordes of foreigners which it receives and assimilates.

This is due to the excellence of the detective force.


Inspector Byrnes is well known for his vigilance as an officer, and is a born detective, and, under him, pickpocketing and burglary have been well nigh stamped out.

But the main difference between the London and New York detectives is that Inspector Byrnes’s men catch the thieves.

The police headquarters is a handsome marble building, and I found Inspector Byrnes there at his post – or rather at his two posts – for just now he is both acting superintendent and detective inspector.

He is a man over forty, and he looks as if he could do a good deal of hard and rough work. He is frank and open in his manner, and an enthusiastic American, but you can detect an echo of the old country in his tongue.

A photograph of Inspector Byrnes.
Thomas F. Byrnes


I commenced by asking him the regulation question, how he would catch Jack the Ripper?:-

“A hundred newspaper men have asked me that question,” said the inspector, “and I have always declined to answer it. I don’t think I would be justified in criticising the police methods in London, when I don’t know the circumstances, and am 3,000 miles away from the spot.

Police-inspectors all over the country have been giving their opinions about it, and I think they were a set of fools for opening their mouths.

I will say, however, that the people of New York wouldn’t have put up with what Warren did for a moment.”


“Are military men like Warren made officers in the New York police?”

” No. The police are governed by four commissioners, who are appointed for six years by the mayor. They appoint the officers and men, and they hear complaints, but the chief executive officer is the superintendent.

The superintendent is the chief of the police, and the city is divided into thirty-six precincts, over each of which there is a captain. Men are promoted
gradually, according to their deserts.

An officer is never appointed over the heads of men of more experience.

A man may remain in the force all his life if he likes: he is only removed for bad conduct.

I have been a detective inspector for ten years, but I entered the force as a patrolman twenty-six years ago, and the superintendent was a patrolman under me.”


“You are on better terms with the press than the London police? ”

” Yes. Our ways are different from yours. You are tied to old customs, usages, and monarchical ways. We are freer and more cosmopolitan.

We recognize that newspaper men have a duty to discharge, and we help them. Every New York newspaper keeps a reporter at police headquarters day and night.

I am a centre through which a great deal of news filters, and I consider it my duty to communicate that news to the press.”


“Then you think that publicity facilitates detection?”

“Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

If I have something which I think inadvisable in the interests of justice to publish, and if any of these reporters around here get hold of it, why I just go to them and ask them not to publish

And they don’t, until the case is ripe.

We have great difficulty in keeping things from leaking out, but I always find the reporters ready to keep back anything that I desire.

On the other hand, if I hear that some of the reporters have got hold of information which the others haven’t, I have got up out of bed to supply them rather than that they should get left.

We supply them all alike.

The newspaper men are an excellent set of fellows, and we are on very good terms with them.”


“Are there many pickpockets in New York ?”

“No, the professionals go to Europe and come back and spend their money here.

I know what steamers they sail on, and spot them when they return. I sometimes hear of them in the papers when they are abroad.

A woman was arrested the other day for stealing at the Paris Exhibition, and having got lawyers and the American Consul to speak for her, was just on the point of being released, when I telegraphed the prefect of police to hold her, as I thought she was Sophie Lines, a notorious professional; and she turned out to be Sophie, just as I thought.”


“Any big burglaries in New York ?”

“There hasn’t been a burglary worth 1.000 dollars for years.”

“Bank robberies?”

“There has been one under my time, but we caught the thieves, though it took us four years to do it.”


“How do you choose your detectives?”

“They are recruited from the police force. But not every policeman can be a detective.

When I took over the department I discharged all the men but four.

The detective force numbers fifty-seven; and I have Americans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotch-men, Germans, Bohemians, Frenchmen, and all nationalities.

No, we never require extra assistance.

When the Centennial celebrations took place this year, and when 11,000,000 of people were in New York, we had offers of assistance from all over the country, but I declined them. I could manage all right with my own men.

A detective’s business is to know thieves, and I make it my business to associate with thieves and know them.

I spend a couple of hours every day among thieves.

No: I don’t publish photographs or descriptions of men I want. That is the very way to let them know to clear out; I go to work and find them.”


Inspector Byrnes doesn’t approve of the French system of identifying criminals by the anthropometric or measurement system. He thinks it is too slow.

He depends on descriptions and photographers, but especially on the knowledge of his detective.

Mr. Byrnes compiled an important book some years ago, giving the portraits, descriptions, and records of leading professional thieves, which has been of great service to the police of different countries.


He says that the anarchist movement “doesn’t amount to anything ” in New York now.

When Herr Most [this is a reference to German-American anarchist Johann Joseph “Hans” Most (1846 – 1906)] was at his best and the anarchists thought they were strong, some of Byrnes’s men were their ringleaders and chief advisers.”