Posted by: macusack | September 19, 2018

Detective Flash Cards: Criminal Portraits for the Modern Detective

In class we discussed how in his essay On Duty with Inspector Field, Dickens endows Inspector Field with “magical properties.” One of the ways Dickens depicts Field as an all-powerful agent of the law is by conveying how familiar Field is with everyone he encounters during his rounds of the city. Field, with his acute “roving eye”, shows his familiarity with the city’s criminals during a visit to a haunt of “noted thieves” (9). It behooved a detective to know who has committed crimes, the thinking being that they may do so again.

With ever expanding urban populations, it seems impossible that a detective in a sprawling city like New York or London would have the ability to be so intimately acquainted with the criminal community. In the late 19th century, years after Dickens’ nighttime sojourn with Field, an inspector in America appears to have mimicked what Field was able to do in London with the assistance of photography. In The Burden of Representation John Tagg highlights an important pivot in the use photography when he writes, “It was no longer a privilege to be pictured but the burden of a new class of the surveilled” (Tagg, 59). Detectives no longer had to depend upon memory, but draw from physical catalogue of images and descriptions of those they had arrested.

In his article, “Cheats, Swindlers and Ne’er-Do-Wells: A New York Family Album” Dan Barry describes Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes of New York City “whose legacy straddles fame and infamy” (Barry). A controversial figure, Byrnes “believed that criminals had no civil rights, considered torture to be just another investigative tool” (Barry). One of the less horrendous “investigative tool[s]” Byrnes exploited was photography: “Byrnes is perhaps most famous for enhancing and popularizing what came to be known as the Rogues’ Gallery: a collection of hundreds of photographs of criminals, along with detailed descriptions of their looks and habits, which detectives were expected to memorize.” Police could be now familiarize themselves with noted criminals without putting in years of observation or forming relationships the way Field and other inspectors had done before. The image of the gallery of criminal portraits created a  juxtaposition in my mind with the National Portrait Gallery in England. Instead of the artistoracy, however, here were images of “Lord Courtney — a.k.a. Lord Beresford, a.k.a. Sir Harry Vane of Her Majesty’s Lights — a suave British commoner who liked to swindle money from the wealthy belles he bedazzled” (Barry). Barry’s article is entertaining for the anecdotes he shares about some of the more flamboyant criminals in the gallery, whose names (“Poodle Murphy” for one) seem like characters from an old Hollywood gangster film

When Byrnes eventually became the chief of the Detective Bureau he took measures to reinvigorate the department by training the officers “how to conduct surveillance, gather intelligence, and analyze data. His cultivation of informants in every alley and dive, as well as of reporters at every newspaper, fed his growing reputation as a gifted sleuth who knew the mugs and thugs better than they knew themselves” (Barry). Here, Byrnes reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, who often calls upon a vast network of informants for assistance in his work.

One aspect of Barry’s article that I found interesting was that he frames the photographs and attendant descriptions, which survive in the form of Byrnes’ 1886 collection “Professional Criminals of America,”  as telling stories about people whose lives would have otherwise remained unknown. Barry describes the portraits as “maps of hard miles: the Irish potato famine and the Civil War, the Bowery dives and the Five Points squalor, the rough childhoods spent hawking matches and squawking the news” (Barry). While the photographs were used by Byrnes and the police as identification and surveillance, they can now function as an archive of marginalized lives and stories.



Barry, Dan. “Cheats, Swindlers and Ne’er-Do-Wells: A New York Family Album.” Feb 09 2018. Web. ProQuest. 19 Sep. 2018.

Dickens, Charles. On Duty with Inspector Field.

Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation.



  1. In a similar vein to your points about Tagg’s article, I found it intriguing that what he seemed to be looking for was not even a physical characteristic or trait that would point towards criminal behavior or identify a person as such, but rather that body as an object to be monitored, memorized and categorized. Tagg expected photography to capture this “truth” about these criminals and present it to a larger audience, in this case the detectives who would visit the gallery as an informational source. What I found sort of astounding and intriguing is the mismatched function of photography in this era. Where it’s middle class people dressed up to match a certain persona or idea so that viewers would assume that they were of a certain class, status or wealth, the photographs of the criminals is does the complete opposite. Rather than creating a false idea about someone, the photo takes away their humanity at the expense of documentation.

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