If sex sells, crime can pay. At least when it comes to creating a popular exhibit. Returning from visiting friends last summer, I pulled into the Dufferin County Museum to check out a travelling show, Arresting Images: Mug Shots from The OPP Museum. Stripped of the expansive criminal narrative of a Deadwood or Sherlock Holmes, this compelling collection of late 19th century mug shots are riveting nonetheless. Amazingly, the Ontario Provincial Police have the oldest known collection of mug shots in North America. More amazing still, these photos were found completely by accident.
“Staff Superintendent Fred Blucher was cleaning out an old storage room and came across a large book of photographs,” OPP Strategic Communications Officer and former OPP Museum Curator Jeanie Tummon told me when I called her up to learn more about the show she put together. The place was Niagara Falls. The year 1965. The massive album contained close to 500 mug shots. “The Staff Superintendent knew he had stumbled across something unique,” Jeanie continued. “But it took a while to realize just how important his find was.”
Once funds were raised to research and archive the collection, Jeanie discovered that the cache had real historic significance. “Places like the Kingston Penitentiary have mug shots dating back to the early 20th century but they were taken after the criminals had been processed. So their heads were already shaved and they were in prison garb. What makes the OPP’s find so special is that most of the images were taken at the time of arrest or following sentencing. The people in our collection still have a lot of personality.”
True that. The direct gaze of these criminals sparked my imagination. I considered various scenarios that might have led each to a life of crime and how those crimes had been enacted. Were the accused poor and desperate? Or simply horrible people? Or poor, desperate and horrible? Much as you want to, you just can’t know.
The term mug shot is derived from slang for face, which is sort of obvious when you think about it. The practice began in 1841 when the Paris Police recognized that the newly invented medium of photography could aid in identifying criminals. Police forces began to share images, particularly at border crossings. This may be the reason why the Ontario Police (early forebears of the Ontario Provincial Police) in Niagara Falls had such a variety and number of photographs. It may be also because it was an early administrative hub. They had received mug shots from various Ontario and from New York State police forces, and other private detective agencies.
In viewing the collection, it is clear that the art of the mug shot differed from place to place and evolved over time. Back in the day, there was little stylistic uniformity and few if any rules. With the use of soft lighting and props such as elegant furniture, many images in the collection look like there were taken in a photographer’s studio and not in the local police station. Jeanie confirmed that this was the case.
The Bertillon System of Criminal Identification, which specified that frontal and profile photos should be taken, had not yet been uniformly adopted. As a result subjects posed in all sorts of ways. One criminal posed with his gun. Many wear hats which, given the formality of late 19th century dress, makes the subject look quite fashionable and even fetching. I suspect for many of those charged, this may have been the only photograph taken in their life, and it seems that they made the most of the opportunity. In one case, Jeanie explained, the police simply used a portrait that a relatives had supplied.
Almost as intimate as the photos themselves are the handwritten notes recorded by various arresting or processing officers. Most used a rudimentary data collection form though in some cases the officers just wrote on a blank sheet of paper. The collection of vital statistics was also in its infancy and so the types of data recorded varied greatly. Some records indicate birthmarks, particularism of teeth, or other distinguishing marks. Others reveal whether the accused could read or write. Many included the criminal’s rap sheet.
The naming of crimes also appears to be a moving target. George Dutin was not just a horse thief but a ‘Notorious Horse Thief”. Joseph Patterson was accused of “Burglary and Sneak”. Lillie Williams’ crime was “Suspicion”- begging the question of what? And George Henry Appley’s report reads, “Is an opium eater”. “John Meyer alias McLane”, was charged with “con and bunco”. Bunco, I confess, I had never heard of; it turns out to be “a swindle in which an unsuspecting person is cheated; a confidence game”. Punishments, when recorded, were equally intriguing with one man being simply “sentenced to leave town”.
Of all the photos in the room, it was 32 year old Rebecca Shanley’s that I found the most intriguing. In 1888, she was charged with “elopement” but in absentia. A married woman and a mother, she ran off with another man, taking her daughter with her. Rebecca’s husband, suspecting that he had been abandoned for a Mr. Fuller, went to the police. They, in turn circulated Rebecca’s photo and details about her, including that she was a “remarkable woman”. We only know most of this because during the course of her research, Jeanie uncovered a New York Times article about her. It is, however, unknown whether she and her daughter were ever found.
Apparently I am not alone in loving this exhibit. The Ontario Museum Association bestowed on it an Award of Excellence. Since 2009 it has drawn crowds from around the province and across the country. This year, Arresting Images can be seen at Welland Historical Museum until the end of May. In June, it moves to Port Perry where it can be seen until December at the Lennox & Addington County Museum & Archives. Catch it while you can!