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shameless pleading

Third degree

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Dear Word Detective:  I am reading an interesting book about a murder in New York City in 1897. The book is called “The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars.” I’m only just beginning, and I don’t know whodunnit yet, so don’t tell me! My question is about this: One of the policemen involved is a Captain Stephen O’Brien. There is some discussion about his effectiveness at interrogating and the interrogation rooms, which are appropriately sound-proofed so that the Captain can give suspects the “third degree.” According to the author, this is a phrase that Captain O’Brien’s predecessor, Inspector Thomas Barnes, coined. Any way to verify that? — Jenny Nunemacher.

Ah yes, the Gilded Age, that late 19th century era of the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, Mellons, Astors and their rarefied ilk, their opulent mansions, yachts, sweatshops, tenements, corrupt politicians and lurid scandals. How exotic I wish that all sounded today. Incidentally, the term “Gilded Age” was actually coined by Mark Twain and C.D. Warner as the title of their novel, published in 1873.

I can’t tell you whodunnit, and wouldn’t if I did, but apparently Paul Collins, the author of that book, is far from the first to write about that singularly grisly murder (A.J. Liebling titled his 1955 New Yorker piece about the crime “The Case of the Scattered Dutchman”). It was also the occasion of an important early battle in the war between the Pulitzer and Hearst newspaper empires.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the sense of “third degree” in your question as “An interrogation of a prisoner by the police involving the infliction of mental or physical suffering in order to bring about a confession or to secure information.” The phrase is often used in an extended sense to mean a less intense but still thorough sort of questioning, such as by a parent of a tardy child or an irate boss of a feckless underling. In the “police interrogation” sense, the first printed use of “third degree” found so far is from 1895 (“From time to time a prisoner … claims to have had the Third Degree administered to him,” 1900). But an 1880 Harvard Lampoon story refers to “a personal chastisement in the third degree,” apparently meaning a severe scolding, so the phrase may be a good deal older.

Use of “third degree” to mean a third step in severity of something dates back to the 16th century, and a “third degree burn” has been the most serious sort since the mid-19th century. Oddly enough, given that “third degree” in the police sense is definitely a US coinage, in US criminal law a crime “in the third degree” is the least serious grade of that crime.

The exact origin of “third degree” in the “brutal interrogation” sense is, predictably, unknown. I’m not sure on what evidence Paul Collins bases his statement that Inspector Thomas Barnes coined it, but I strongly suspect that he’s wrong. It’s not uncommon for people to claim to have invented words and phrases (or to know who did) and for writers decades or centuries later to take those claims as being true simply because they were made at about the same time that the phrase first appeared. But it’s also not absolutely impossible that Inspector Barnes either invented or popularized the term in that sense. It does seem to have originated in New York City.

More likely, however, is that “the third degree” in the “beat with a rubber hose” sense was adopted by analogy to another use, perhaps the burn classification, which certainly would have been familiar to police officers.

A more intriguing (and I think likely) possibility is that “third degree” was originally a reference to the Third Degree in Freemasonry, the level of Master Mason, which is only reached after undergoing a rigorous examination and questioning by elder Masons. Freemasonry was more popular in the 19th century US than it is today, and the “Third Degree” of Masonry, which was established around 1725, would have been familiar to many police officers in the 1890s. Since the Masonic interrogation ceremony was undoubtedly intellectually difficult but far from the “third degree” administered by the police, the first use of the term by police may well have been, in fact, as a jocular euphemism.

3 comments to Third degree

  • MarkB

    I go with the analogy to burns. A third degree burn does real, lasting damage to tissue, but doesn’t necessarily kill. The analogy between that and extreme interrogation methods – whether physical or psychological – seems reasonable.

  • Bill Culbertson

    Under Manchu rule in China, there were three degrees of capital punishment.

    First Degree: The prisoner was put to death.

    Second Degree: If the crime was serious enough, an investigation would be made into the prisoner’s family. If the father as so lax as to raise a bad son, it could mean he raised all his sons poorly. He would be executed, along with all his sons, and perhaps all his grandsons.

    Third Degree: If the crime was truely heinous, say trying to kill the Emperor, the courts would check out the prisoner’s grandfather. If the grandfather was found wanting in moral rectitude, all his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons would be executed.

    It was an attempt to have the family and clan keeping people in line.

    I doubt a N.Y.C. police captain studied the Chinese legal system, but he may have worked in Chinatown.

  • Mike Santangelo

    Among Irish Catholic policeman in NY the Third Degree would be known to members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization formed in 1880 by an Irish priest in nearby New Haven. Making the Third Degree conferred full membership in the Knights. It was also the toughest and most demanding test for the candidate.
    To “give him the third degree” was code for a very tough police interrogation.

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