Publication Date: Sept. 2000
Author: Thomas Byrnes
Written by Inspector Thomas Byrnes, a former chief of the New York City detective bureau (1880-1895), this book was an attempt to make the public aware of the lives and practices of "career criminals" in 19th Century America. Byrnes gives an explanation of numerous criminal professions, such as bank robbers, forgers, con artists, and thieves, as well as sections on opium addiction. The book contains profiles of more than 200 convicted criminals, including photographs and descriptions of their crimes and capture. The good inspector's writing style seems to borrow heavily from pulp crime stories of the day; his descriptions are lurid, yet still sanitized enough to not offend Victorian sensabilities.
While an interesting exploration of the practices of 19th Century criminals (in case you're interested in pulling off a bogus horse sale or something), the book is more significant as a reflection of common 19th Century beliefs about origins and practitioners of crime. Inspired by developments in psychology, biology, and other fields, in the 19th Century there emerged an idea of the 'criminal class' or 'professional criminal', the idea that there existed an entire underworld class within ordinary society that lived solely by the fruits of their criminal endeavours. While similar ideas had been posited previously, they reached a new currency (and one might even say obsession) during the Victorian age. Much of the theories that formed the underpinnings of these questionable notions would go on to inspire much of the torturous and confused logic of race that would continue to trouble the West throughout the 19th and 20th Century
Current published version includes introductions by S.J. Perelman and historian Arthur Schlesinger.