Friday, May 17, 2013

Criminal History

by Sheila Connolly

I spent much of the past few weeks on the road, both at the Malice Domestic conference (where I saw two other Daughters, Sandy and Liz, if all too briefly) and doing research for my current work in progress, the nameless #5 in the Museum Mystery series, which in this particular case is set both in Philadelphia and in one of its suburbs.

In the first book of that series, Fundraising the Dead, part of the plot hinged on the creation of a new history museum in Philadelphia.  I didn't make this up:  it was a concept that was talked about within the Philadelphia museum community (which I was once part of) for quite some time, over a decade ago.  Happily it finally came to fruition, and the new and improved Philadelphia History Museum opened in 2012.  This trip gave me my first opportunity to visit it.

It was a slightly weird experience because the new museum acquired many of the paintings and other objects that once belonged to The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where I worked for several years, so at every turn I kept meeting old friends and familiar faces. Everything was handsomely presented, and I was glad to see that they had found a new home.

But I also encountered some items on display that were new to me, and one in particular intrigued me:  a police mug book from around 1900. (Note: I took several pictures, a practice that was once prohibited in most museums, but the advent of the cell phone has made it all but impossible to regulate, so in this museum at least it's permitted.) A quick online search reveals that it was Allen Pinkerton who invented the mugshot in the 19th century. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency first began using these on wanted posters in the Wild West days. By the 1870s the agency had amassed the largest collection of mug shots in the United States.

The mug book in Philadelphia was both familiar and unfamiliar.  As you can see, it's a large bound volume.  Miscreants are included in the familiar two photographs, from the front and from the side. The first thing that struck me was that all criminals were allowed to wear their hat for the frontal photo.  Given the era, some of those hats, particularly among the women, were rather elaborate.

Yes, there were women criminals in the mug book.  Regrettably it was possible to view only the one double page on display (from December 1903), so I couldn't do a meaningful assessment of the ratio of men to women, but those two pages included four women. All were respectably dressed and behatted.  I couldn't decipher the crimes, save for one: Ethel Larson (wearing a very strange hat) was accused/convicted of Larceny. I presume the "Sus." that appears under many of the photos means "Suspect."  Other crimes included pickpocket, burglary, embezzlement, conspiracy (of what was not recorded), and breaking and entering.  There were two black faces on the pages.

The pictures are crisp and clear, the details written in legible script.  To a genealogist this is a strange treasure trove; to a mystery writer it's a delightful glimpse of crime in another time. There is a curious aura of respectability to the photos, despite the fact that the people depicted are accused of a crime.  All were allowed to clean up and dress up for the important act of being photographed.  Contrast that with the quick and dirty mugs shots of today.

How I wish it were possible to spend time leafing through this book, and others like it!  Would we find differences between the faces of then and now? Did a psychopath look different in 1903?  

1 comment:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I can relate to your experience of finding old friends in a new museum space. I spent many of my Saturday afternoons in high school at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the building I visited was torn down long ago, and the current building is not the first but the second that replaced it. I agree it's weird.

As for psychopaths, my guess is they look the same, especially as psychopaths tend to look like anybody else. Have you ever taken a good look at the busts of some of those crazy old Roman emperors, like Nero and Caligula? I think they look much like modern politicians, probably because of the short haircuts.