California Literary Review

Book Review: The Big Policeman by J. North Conway


January 11th, 2011 at 7:00 am

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The Big Policeman by J. North Conway
The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective
by J. North Conway
Lyons Press, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Biggest Cop on the Beat

On Monday, July 13, 1863, federal officials met at the Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office in Manhattan to conduct the second drawing of names for men who would be drafted into the Union Army. It was a typically muggy summer day. The drawing, the second held in the city since the U.S. Congress passed the unpopular conscription law, had just begun when a mob of 500 people began rioting outside the office. The ensuing unrest would involve tens of thousands of New York residents and lead to several thousand deaths over the next four days.

New York Police Superintendent John Alexander Kennedy was one of the first targets of the rioters — most of them Irish immigrants. Kennedy, age 60, had moved quickly to mobilize his men when he first received news of the growing riot. Because of the war, he had fewer NYPD men available and the usual alternate manpower source for controlling major public disturbances — the city’s branch of the state militia — was completely absent from the city, having been called away days earlier to join the Union Army at Gettysburg. Federal troops were called in to break up the riots, but they would take days to reach New York. Until they did arrive, Kennedy and his officers were the only organized force to deal with the rioters.

Although Kennedy was in civilian dress, people in the mob recognized him riding in his carriage and chased him. Kennedy bolted for Lexington Avenue, outrunning the first mob and running straight into the clutches of a second group of trouble-makers. At this point, Kennedy tripped and fell into a large mud puddle. Shouts from the rioters called for the superintendent to be drowned.

A large, young Irish cop waded into the puddle, his service revolver drawn, and hauled Kennedy to his feet. He backed down the mob baying for Kennedy’s blood and dragged the mud-soaked, bleeding superintendent to safety. The greenest of the department’s current batch of police recruits had already seen active service in the Union Army earlier in the war, which accounted for his coolness under pressure. He would change policing in New York over the next four decades, some of it for better, some of it for worse.

J. North Conway’s new account of the law enforcement career of Thomas Byrnes, The Big Policeman, shows us what it took to bring some degree of order and safety to New York City’s streets in the Gilded Age. And he’s scrupulously fair to Byrnes, whose bare-knuckled approach to his job would never be acceptable to most modern Americans. He was a man of his age and, somewhat ironically, a cop who would introduce many of the basic techniques that almost all current law enforcement agencies still use.

Byrnes worked his way up the career ladder quickly, making the grade of sergeant in 1869 and captain in 1870. Unlike almost all his of his contemporaries in the NYPD, Byrnes had a reputation as an unbendable copper who refused to take bribes. His peers paid exhorbitant bribes to Tammany Hall in order to advance in rank. Byrnes’ work and stellar reputation made him one of the few officers on the force to advance solely on merit. When he was inevitably chosen as the city’s first Inspector of Detectives, Byrnes wasted little time in consolidating the NYPD’s criminal investigators into one squad working out of a single precinct house. He then conducted a thorough house-cleaning, breaking known bribe-takers and time-servers from the detective bureau. In their place, he brought in the best men he could find in the NYPD, job placement bribes and political connections be damned.

Byrnes expected his men to work long hours and to use their brains. He taught them to keep meticulous notes on every crime they investigated and on every criminal they ran across. Byrnes seems to have had a photographic memory that never forgot a criminal’s face or name and priors. To help his detectives, he instituted the booking photo, which continues in almost the exact same form as Byrnes first designed it over a century ago. His mugshot book, Professional Criminals of America, released in 1886 stayed almost constantly in print until 2000.

At a time when the study of psychology was just beginning to take shape, Byrnes showed a streak of genius in his methods of interrogating criminals. He downplayed what he named “the third degree” in favor of throwing suspects off-balance emotionally and relentlessly pressing them to answer questions. Few men dragged into Byrnes’ office for questioning ever looked forward to a repeat performance.

Byrnes, however, did use violence in some of his interrogations, usually through one of his detectives or one of the NYPD’s “goons,” often his friend Alexander “Clubber” Williams, who would eventually be swept out of the department during one of the periodic good-government investigations into corruption in the ranks of the New York Police Department. Byrnes would become a target of reformers because of reports that he and his men used physical force to coerce confessions out of suspects. The Lexow Committee dragged Byrnes onto the carpet in 1894, demanding that he explain how he had managed to save up $300,000 on a salary of only $2,000 per year. Byrnes claimed that financier Jay Gould had managed to build up what little Byrnes had left over from his meager wages over a period of two decades. He may have been telling the truth. He had close ties to many Wall Street leaders, having opened a special detective bureau in the financial district to deter robbers and other criminals from preying on banks and brokerages.

The Lexow Committee, which conducted an extremely thorough investigation into corruption in the NYPD, never laid a glove on Byrnes. His prominence among the committee’s targets, however, effectively ended his career. He was pensioned off by Theodore Roosevelt in 1895 and worked as a private investigator until his death in 1910.

Byrnes deserves to be remembered, both for the positive aspects of his work as well as his less savory acts. J. North Conway renders a well-written account of Byrnes’ career, particularly his greatest cases. Byrnes depended on solving crimes to advance his career and would tolerate nothing but careful, thorough work from his detectives and himself. Conway sets Byrnes carefully in his milieu and resists the urge to draw a completely consistant portrait of his subject. Complex people deserve biographies consistent with their personal incongruencies. And most of us are, in one way or another, complex. Conway celebrates the opposing urges in Thomas Byrnes’ life and work. The Big Policeman could not ask for more.


Sam Stowe is a writer and poet who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He has never taken a bribe.

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