“Of what good could can these twisted and unnatural faces be? Were their owners met in the streets their countenances would be composed…No one would know them then. Well, that is all wrong…The sun has been too quick for them, and has imprisoned the lines of the profile and the features and caught the expression before it could be disguised. There is not a portrait here but has some marked characteristic by which you can identify the man who sat for it. That is what has to be studied in the Rouges’ Gallery—detail.”
–Chief Inspector Thomas Byrnes, referring to the “Rogue’s Gallery,” his collection of identifying photographs of career criminals throughout New York City, in his book, Professional Criminals of America, 18861
A Brief History of the Mug Shot:
Some of the earliest photographs ever taken were of criminals.2 The first recognizable mug shot was taken in Belgium in 1843, with police in Liverpool following close behind in 1848.3 The kind of mug shots we all recognize today, however—a full-on portrait next to a profile shot—didn’t appear until the 1880s, when a man named Alphonse Bertillon invented the first organized system for criminal identification in Paris. Known as the Bertillon System, it involved taking precise measurements of a criminal’s body, noting things like arm length and the “lengths of the middle left fingers” in order to help police identify repeat offenders who might give another name when arrested.4 While Bertillon started out with meticulous lists of arm, leg, forehead and finger measurements, his system grew over time to include height, weight, hair and eye color, fingerprints—and mug shots.
Bertillon’s photos were very different from the previous ones, however. Earlier mug shots were often low quality images taken by “indifferent commercial photographers,” with little attention paid as to whether or not the criminal was attempting to “intentionally distort their face to disguise their appearance” or if the background was distracting.5 Instead, Bertillon favored a “stark and simple” background with minimal distractions for his mug shots and encouraged neutral expressions.6
Bertillon’s non-nonsense photo style caught on quickly in America. His entire System was first introduced to American law enforcement in 1887 by R. W. McClaughry, the Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet, IL, who translated his books into English and applied his measuring system to his inmates.7 Shortly afterward the Chicago Police Department adapted Bertillon’s system, becoming the first police department in America to do so. They then went on to demonstrate his system at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 for visiting foreign police, encouraging the spread of the mug shot internationally.8
Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, was another early proponent of mug shots. While sometimes credited with the creation of the mug shot, Pinkerton is also known for being one of the first people to compile his photos into a “mug book”—a “primitive database” of known criminals—and sending it to banks and “cops across the country” along with pertinent details about the subjects’ crimes, thus creating early “rap” sheets.9 Pinkerton also popularized mug shots by slapping them on “Wanted” posters across the nation, forever associating mug shots with established criminal records.10
Mug shots are still part of today’s criminal booking process. After recording the suspect’s name, the next step in booking is to take a mug shot.11 These shots can be used in court, but many see them as having a negative effect on juries. Ever since Pinkerton’s Wanted posters, most people naturally assume that any individual depicted in a mug shot must have some kind of criminal record.12 As a result, a number of states have disallowed their use in court.13
Some people consider mug shots to be art. Mark Michaelson is an avid collector of mugshots, which he reposts on a Flickr stream as found art objects. Michaelson was originally given his first mugshot as a birthday gift.14 Since then, his haunting collection of “hookers, stooges, grifters and goons…punks, sneaks, mooks and miscreants…men and women…Elderly and adolescent…Rich and poor” has grown to over 10,000 photos over a period of ten years.15 Not just any mugshot will do, however. Michaelson says about choosing the photos for his collection: “[after a while] I started to figure out that I wasn’t interested in famous criminals or people who’d committed big crimes or very violent crimes…I wanted the small-time people, petty crooks who just fell through the cracks. Instead of being most wanted, these were the least wanted.”16
Michaelson’s “strange kind of scavenger hunt” was recently turned into another kind of art.17 Not only were some of his photos published in a 2006 book, but he and his collection were the subject of a 2014 Toronto documentary called American Mugshot. His Flickr stream, Least Wanted, which he updates daily, can be found here.
The following Roaring Twenties mug shots are some of my favorites from around the internet. Most of the “artsy”-looking ones are public domain photos courtesy of The Sydney Living Museum’s collections, while the rest are from the Nebraska State Historical Society. The Australian ones are more informal than the others, but that’s just part of their charm. Personally I think they’re all wonderful. Not only does each one showcase period dress in crisp detail, but the best ones are bursting with personality. The occasional notes written about the person’s crimes are fascinating, too. For me, they spark all sorts of questions and story ideas…
What do they make you think of?
Not Period, But Still Awesome:
Want More Photos?
Most of these images came from here–and there are a LOT more there. As for the Nebraska ones, they came from here.
1. Conway, J. North. The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective. Guilford, CN: Lyons Press. 2010. 191.←
2. Papke, David R. “A History of the Mug Shot,” Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog. http://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/2013/10/16/a-history-of-the-mug-shot/←
3. Wikipedia contributors, “Mug shot,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mug_shot&oldid=645213872←
4. Fisher, Jim. “Alphonse Bertillon: The Father of Criminal Identification,” Jim Fisher: the Official Website. January 8th 2008. http://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/bertillon1.html←
6. Wikipedia, “Mug Shot.”←
7. “Bertillon System of Criminal Identification,” National Law Enforcement Museum Insider. Vol. 3, Issue 9, November 2011. http://www.nleomf.org/museum/news/newsletters/online-insider/november-2011/bertillon-system-criminal-identification.html←
8. Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation. Oxford University Press. 94.←
9. Kovalchik, Kara. January 29, 2015. “Who Originated the Mug Shot?” mental_floss. http://mentalfloss.com/article/61358/who-originated-mug-shot-america←
10. Wikipedia, “Mug Shot.”←
11. Berman, Sarah J. “What Happens During Booking?” NOLO: Law for All. 2014. http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/what-happens-during-booking.html←
12. Wikipedia, “Mug Shot.” ←
14. Michaelson, Mark, and Steven Kasher. 2006. Least wanted: a century of American mugshots. New York: Steven Kasher Gallery.←
16. Kennedy, Randy. September 15th, 2006. “Grifters and Goons, Framed (and Matted),” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/15/arts/design/15mugs.html?n=Top%2FReference%2FTimes%20Topics%2FPeople%2FH%2FHearst%2C%20Patricia&_r=1&←
17. Ibid.a title=”Jump back to footnote 17 in text.”>←