Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes, Inventor of the Third Degree


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New York's first great police detective was Thomas F. Byrnes. A largely self-educated Irish immigrant, Byrnes joined the force in 1863. He rose to sergeant by 1869 and captain by 1870. In 1878, the Manhattan Savings Bank, which was in his precinct, was robbed. Byrnes took the robbery as a personal affront and tracked down the criminals through hard, thorough, gritty detective work. Two years later, the newly promoted Inspector Byrnes took command of the Detective Bureau, which he made among the most efficient and absolutely secret in the world. After the state legislature reorganized the Detective Bureau to his specifications in 1882, his power was immense.

A master self-publicist, Byrnes published Professional Criminals of America (1886), a minor classic, still in print, which no student of American history should be without. Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel's son, wrote a series of tales taken "from the Diary of Inspector Byrnes." He described Byrnes as "handsome...large and powerful in every sense of the word. His head is well shaped, with a compact forehead, strong nose, and resolute mouth and chin, shaded with a heavy moustache. His figure is erect, his step light, his bearing alert and easy. His eyes are his most remarkable feature... They have in moments of earnestness an extraordinary gaze. His voice is melodious and agreeable, but he often seems to speak between his teeth, and when aroused his utterance acquires an impressive energy."

Other journalists, though less adoring, were also impressed. Lincoln Steffens described Byrnes as "simple, no complications at all?a man who would buy you or beat you, as you might choose, but get you he would." Jacob A. Riis met Byrnes while working as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In his autobiography, The Making of an American, Riis describes Byrnes as tough, effective, unscrupulous, autocratic and utterly ruthless. He believed thieves had no rights a police officer was bound to respect. Above all, he was a ferocious and imaginative interrogator. Byrnes coined the phrase "third degree" to describe his methods of eliciting useful information from criminal suspects. He had no scruples about torture and did anything necessary to make suspects confess. Anything.

In February or March, 1891, an interviewer asked Byrnes' opinion of the London police's handling of the Whitechapel murders: the savage mutilation of East End streetwalkers attributed to Jack the Ripper. The Chief Inspector commented that the London police had sent him a photograph of the Ripper's most famous letter, the signature boldly scrawled across the page, with its return address, "From Hell." According to The New York Times, Byrnes "said it would be impossible for crimes such as Jack the Ripper committed in London to occur in New York and the murderer not be found."

This was published about six weeks before the night of April 23, 1891.

Water St. in downtown Manhattan was then lined with low watering holes and dance halls, catering to what Luc Sante's Low Life called "a highly elastic clientele of sailors." Herbert Asbury noted in The Gangs of New York that practically every house on Water St. contained at least one dive. He wrote "at one time, some tenements had a saloon, dance hall, or house of prostitution on every floor."

The East River Hotel stood at the southeast corner of Catherine Slip and Water St. Sante claims the hotel was a crimp joint, used by "operators who specialized in drugging and robbing sailors, sometimes arranging for them to be shanghaied about tramp boats, if they survived." Asbury also claims sailors were robbed and killed there in their sleep, and their bodies disposed of through trapdoors opening into underground passages that led to the docks.

Between 10:30 and 11 p.m. on April 23, 1891, Carrie Brown, an aged whore known as Old Shakespeare, flounced into the hotel with a john in tow. She claimed to have been a celebrated actress in England in her youth. She supported her contention by reciting, in return for a bottle of swan gin, every major female role in Hamlet, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice.

The john signed the hotel register as "C. Knick." Mary Miniter, an assistant housekeeper, caught a glimpse of him. She later described him as having a foreign appearance, about 32 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, slim build, long sharp nose, heavy mustache of light color, and wearing a dark-brown cutaway, black trousers and a dented black derby. Even so, Miniter claimed she did not get a good look at him: he seemed "anxious to avoid observation." Old Shakespeare took the key to Room 31.

Around 9 the next morning, Eddie Harrington, the night clerk, saw the key for Room 31 had not been returned. He went upstairs and knocked. Then he took out the master key.

C. Knick was gone, and no one had noticed his departure. Carrie Brown's remains were on the bed. The coroner determined she had first been strangled. Then the murderer had mutilated her body in a frenzy of stabbing and cutting. Dr. Jenkins, who performed the autopsy, thought the killer had attempted to carve the abdomen out of her body.

Rumors of the killing swept the city. By the next morning, even The New York Times had splashed the story on its front page:

Choked, Then Mutilated

A Murder Like One Of Jack The Ripper's Deeds

Whitechapel's Horrors Repeated in an East Side Lodging House

Worse still, the Times repeated Byrnes' boast that the Ripper murders could not have happened in New York without the criminal's arrest within 36 hours. This was precisely not the take Byrnes wanted on the story. His men fanned out into the Fourth Ward.

By April 25, among the numerous men under arrest was George Frank, formerly known as Ameer Ben Ali, also known as Frenchy, an Algerian Arab who professed to neither speak nor understand English. On the night of the murder, Frenchy, an habitue of the East River Hotel, had occupied Room 33, across the hall from Room 31.

Five days later, Chief Inspector Byrnes triumphantly announced that Frenchy was the killer. He admitted Frenchy had not been C. Knick. However, Byrnes alleged that after C. Knick had left, Frenchy had crept across the hall, robbed and killed Carrie Brown and crept back into his own room. There were blood drops on the floor of Room 31 and in the hall between Rooms 31 and 33; blood marks on both sides of the door to Room 33, as if the door had been opened and closed by bloody fingers; blood stains on the floor of Room 33, a chair in that room, the bed blanket and the mattress (apparently, the East River Hotel did not provide sheets). Blood had been found on Frenchy's socks. Scrapings from his fingernails indicated the presence of blood. His explanations of how the blood came to be on him had been found false.

Frenchy was arraigned on April 30 and held in the Tombs until his trial opened on June 24, 1891. As he could not afford an attorney, the court appointed Abraham Levy as his counsel. Abe Levy would conduct some 300 homicide defenses, making him a legend of the criminal bar: this was his first. The court had found an interpreter from his own village in Algeria, so Frenchy could participate in his defense. District Attorney DeLancey Nicoll and a chief assistant, Francis Wellman, prosecuted. Byrnes and four officers testified for the prosecution. According to Edwin Borchard, so did numerous witnesses "from the lowest stratum of New York life, to prove that Frenchy had been living a sordid life, and, particularly, that he was accustomed to staying at the East River Hotel and to wandering from room to room at night."

Three medical experts testified that a chemical analysis of his fingernail scrapings and of the blood stains on the bed in Room 31, the hallway, the door to Room 33, inside Room 33 and on his socks showed "intestinal contents of food elements, all in the same degree of digestion?all exactly identical." They inferred from this that the bloodstains resulted from blood flowing from the abdominal injuries of Carrie Brown.

By contrast, the defense, lacking the resources to conduct a thorough investigation, had to rely on the defendant, who was a dreadful witness. Frenchy sometimes seemed to understand English; at other times, he claimed not to understand questions even after they had been translated into his native dialect. He consistently denied killing Old Shakespeare, but the prosecution (Francis Wellman later wrote in The Art of Cross-Examination) "badly tangled" Frenchy "time and time again upon cross-examination." Frenchy was convicted of second-degree murder and, on July 10, 1891, sentenced to life imprisonment in Sing Sing.

The belief on the street was that Frenchy had been framed. There were two rumors. One was that the murderer, a blond sailor, had sailed for the Far East. The other was that Old Shakespeare really had been murdered by Jack the Ripper. Although most of the Ripper murders were committed during the late summer and autumn of 1888, Frances Coles, also known as "Carrotty Nell," was butchered in February 1891: only two months before Carrie Brown took C. Knick upstairs. Steamers had reduced the travel time from London to New York to roughly a week. Asbury suggests many investigators believed that Jack the Ripper had accepted Byrnes' challenge, and that the police had arrested Frenchy to save Byrnes' professional honor.

Nearly 11 years later, in 1902, Gov. Benjamin B. Odell received a pardon application for Frenchy, based on new evidence. Apparently, a man who matched the description of C. Knick had worked for several weeks in the spring of 1891 at Cranford, NJ, about 15 miles from the city. He had been absent from Cranford on the night of April 23, 1891, and disappeared entirely several days later. Among the objects left in his room were a brass key bearing a tag with the number "31" and a bloody shirt. The key matched the keys to the East River Hotel. After all, the murderer had locked the door to Room 31. No evidence had ever connected Frenchy to the key.

Moreover, Jacob Riis submitted an affidavit based on direct observation. When he had visited the hotel on the morning after the murder, before the coroner's arrival, he had not found blood on the door of either room or in the hallway. The Governor inferred from the affidavits of Riis and other observers that the bloodstains, which had been found by the police only on the day after the murder, had been made at the time of the visit of the coroner and the crowd of reporters when the body was examined and removed. Even the police had testified that there was no blood on or near the lock or knob of the door to Room 31, which presumably the murderer had unlocked, opened, closed and relocked. Yet Frenchy's guilt was premised on evidence suggesting he had passed out of Room 31 dripping blood on the floor, wearing bloody socks, and then smeared blood on the door, floor and bed of Room 33.

Between the weakness of the old evidence and the strength of the new, the Governor's mind was made up. On April 16, 1902, after an imprisonment of 10 years, nine months and 10 days, Frenchy was ordered released. Borchard claims the French government arranged Frenchy's return to Algeria.

Thomas F. Byrnes retired from the force in 1895 after three years as chief of police. He died in 1910.

No one really knows who killed Polly Nicholls, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes or Mary Jane Kelly in the fall of 1888, or Carrotty Nell in February 1891. Nor do we know who killed Carrie Brown.





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