THE BIG POLICEMAN by J. North Conway


The Rise and Fall of America's First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective
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Sensational cases from a legendary New York City detective’s career.

Fans of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs 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.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59921-965-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Lyons Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2010


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