This slideshow displays a sample of the amazing 19th century mug shots that formed part of a show I curated at the New Zealand Police Museum last year, Suspicious Looking (available here as an online exhibition). Until then, these incredible images had never before been shown to the public. What is it about old mug shots that is so utterly compelling? When we look at them, do we try to see evidence of their criminal nature written in their expression? Can you guess what crimes they committed by looking at their faces alone?
To see more of these mug shots, along with their names and crimes, click here to go to the Picasa web album or visit the NZ Police Museum website here. For some ridiculously interesting facts about mug shots, read on…
Some mug shot history trivia:
Do you know why modern mug shots also take a picture in profile? This practice started because of a 19th c. man named Alphonse Bertillon, who dedicated his career to working out a complex system of criminal identification based on dozens of body measurements. Prior to the development of fingerprinting, Bertillon thought that the unique characteristics of ears might be a tool for law enforcement to uniquely identify a criminal. Hence, when photography began to be used as a police tool, he popularized the practice of profile shots to ensure there was a clear image of the offender’s ear.
One of the earliest known mug shot still in existence is this daguerreotype here on the right, taken in Belgium in 1843. However, there is some evidence that French officials used this technique as early as 1841.
- If you looked at the mug shots above and tried to guess their crime or tried to decide if they looked like criminals, then you just participated in the tradition of physiognomy. Physiognomy was a science developed through the 18th and 19th centuries which suggested that a person’s personality traits could be “read” through their facial features. (Not to be confused with phrenology, which studied the bumps of the skull for the same purpose). With the development of mug shot photography in the mid 1800’s, scientists like Sir Frances Galton- best known for his innovations in the science of fingerprinting- hoped that studying these pictures of criminal faces could reveal something about their criminal nature. In one experiment, he layered mug shots of certain ‘types’ of criminals (such as arsonists, smugglers or murderers) on top of one another hoping to find common facial characteristics among them. Read more about physiognomy, photography, and the ‘criminal look’ here.
A fashionable Victorian pastime was a visit to the local Rogue’s Gallery. These galleries in local police stations contained the mug shots of dozens of local criminals, and the public was encouraged to browse through the images in order to familiarize themselves with the devious characters in their neighborhood. The Rogue’s Gallery also served to publicly embarrass many minor criminals, serving as an extra form of punishment.
- You might have noticed that many people in the mug shots above are posed with their hands displayed on their chest. This was because when they were taken in the 1880s, New Zealand was still over two decades away from being introduced to the technology of fingerprinting. The inclusion of hands in the mug shots provided an additional point of identification for the police: missing fingers, scars, and the general shape and condition of the prisoner’s hands could all help in the identification of a suspect. The images below show a few examples of prisoners with distinctive hands.
// One final plug: read more ridiculously interesting facts about mug shot history at the online exhibition Suspicious Looking: 19th Century Mug Shots from the New Zealand Police Museum!
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:
- Ridiculously photogenic 19th century criminal
- Last meals of death row prisoners
- Prisoners inventions
- Picasso without his shirt on