Mugshots. The 19th Century Invention Still Used Every Day

C.A. Asbrey

 A female Suffragette being forced to pose for her mugshot. Note the an’s arm around her throat, although most of him has been removed by the photographer. 

It was the idea of Robert Evan Roberts, the governor of Bedford Prison in the 1850s, who became concerned that too many habitual criminals were getting away.

The police had previously relied on written descriptions to help capture criminals, but he believed these methods were too unreliable.

                                              Men were known to refuse to cooperate too

Instead he commissioned a photographer to take pictures of offenders, so they could easily be traced if they committed further crimes. These poses were vaired and often immitated portraiture. It was the French policeman, Alphonse Bertillon, who standardised the poses to the full face and profile pictures which are still in use today. Bertillon also pioneered anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement creating an identification system based on physical measurements. This method was later overtaken by the use of fingerprinting. This pioneer of crime detection also created many other forensics techniques, including the use of galvanoplastic compounds to preserve footprints, ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering.

These are often posted as mugshots of children, but in reality this is a picture of little Francois Bertillon being photographed by his criminologist father to show the value of the poses he introduced. The full facial and profile then became the gold standard for mugshots around the world. The one below is the same child a little later.

The term ‘Mugshot’ comes from an old English slang word for face – the Mug. And so the mugshot was born.

Looking at the faces from long-gone prisoners is fascinating, not only to students of clothing and wardrobe of the period, but to the those of us fascinated by social history. The pictures provide clues to social standing, hunger and need, as well as cruelty and the ethnic mix of new immigrants starting to show up amongst the poorest in society.

In one of the first formats for mugshots the ruggedly handsome, George Bennett (Alias Harry Simpson), clearly wanted to show his best side when he was arrested for poaching, for which he had a long record. It is even given as his profession in his records.   

The crimes themselves are also telling. Ragged children are arrested for petty thefts, gaunt women picked up on prostitution charges, and men are involved in crime less common today such as poaching and sucking beer straight from the barrels. Overall they show the desperation born of grinding poverty and hopelessness.

Mary Catherine Docherty was 14, but looked far younger, when she was arrested for stealing iron. he for 7 days hard labour.

 7 year old Edgar Kilminster was arrested in 1870 for stealing ‘sweet meats’, which could have been sugary treats. It’s more likely they are the 19th century slang of offal which was quite a treat to the almost starving in 1870. Edgar was given a week’s hard labour and twelve strokes of the birch. He was only 3’10” and was almost certainly malnourished. A normal 7 year old boy is around 4’2″ today.  

Today I’m showing you some of the more unusual mugshots which make up 19th century criminal records. At the other end of the scale we have 79 year old William Lord who was sentenced to six months hard labour for stealing wood. He was pardoned by the queen due to ill health.

George Henry Charles Perry, who was arrested for posing as a vicar to con people. The 32-year-old is seen still wearing his fake dog collar

An early attempt to record different profiles involved a mirror. Prisoners were often obliged to show their hands as missing digits, tattoos, and identifying scars were used to help cut through aliases. Thomas Wallace was first sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for larceny in 1856. On release he offended again almost immediately and was sentenced to three months for a similar crime. On April 10th, 1871 he was sentenced to seven years penal servitude for stealing cloth. He began his sentence in Leeds prison but on May 29th he escaped and went on the run. He next appears in court in December the same year and is sentenced to seven years for receiving stolen goods; sentenced to twelve months in 1881 for escaping from prison; and sentenced to ten years penal servitude for another offence of receiving stolen goods in November 1882.  

Leon Lampord, convicted of fraud at Manchester Assizes in July 1878 and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment.

$10,000 may seem a huge reward for this escaped prisoner in the 1870s, but William M Tweed (known as Boss Tweed) was no small fish. He is alleged to have stolen between 25 and an amazing 400 million dollars from the taxpayers of New York City via various corrupt methods.

On January 29, 1898, Goldie Williams (also known as Meg Murphy) was arrested by the Omaha Police for vagrancy. At the time of her arrest, she was described as 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, her left index finger was broken and she had a cut below her right wrist. Williams listed her home as Chicago and occupation as a prostitute. In her mug shot she is seen sitting defiantly with her arms crossed sporting an elaborate hat with satin ribbons and feathers and wearing large hoop earrings.

Daniel Tohill (incorrectly labelled as Daniel Lohill), born in 1881 in New Zealand. Charged with theft and sentenced to 4 months hard labor on 2 March 1908 in Napier. Photograph taken on 11 June 1908 by the New Zealand Police; image via the archives  of the New Zealand Police Museum. He could give George Bennett a run for his money for the title of most photogenic Victorian Criminal. Tihill’s short criminal career coincided with the arrival of three children one after the other, so it appears he was struggling to support his family.

It’s harder to find 19th century ,mugshots of photogenic women as female prisoners were mostly grindingly poor, emaciated, and rarely well-groomed. Hellny Eklund, 1898, Sweden fits the bill though. The reason for her arrest is not known. She’s described as 1.64m (5′5″) with dark brown hair and blue eyes.

                 Sigrid Viktoria Nilsson’s mugshot  from 1900, Sweden also shows a very photogenic prisoner. The reason for her arrest isn’t available either.

Let’s end with the mugshot of one of the world’s most prolific serial killers. Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer; a woman who took in unwanted babies and who either murdered them or allowed them to starve to death. This crime was rife for centuries, if not millennia, as a way to dispose of unwanted children. Dyer is suspected of killing at least 300 babies over a 30 year period. She was hanged 11 June 1897 at Newgate Prison, London. 

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service–19
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

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