Mug shots – gritty depictions of human drama in a pure, unadulterated form, captured in the medium of vernacular photography, that is, images taken by little-known or amateur photographers.
These photographs poignantly depict men, women, and juveniles – mostly petty criminals – as they appeared shortly after their arrests; their expressions, dishevelment, and lack of composure, in many cases, are evidence of the circumstances of being apprehended.
The countenances displayed vary widely: many individuals who faced the camera were visibly anxious and uneasy, uncertain of their fate. Others appear proud or defiant. There are those that seem careworn or downtrodden, and others, clearly intoxicated, the effects of a bender still clearly evident. Some, perhaps repeat offenders and consequently more accustomed to the process, exhibit expressions of ennui. Surprisingly, a few smile for the camera, as if posing for a photographer in a studio setting.
A veritable cross section of Fall River’s ethnically diverse population – the vast majority the “common man” – appear in these images, with every race, and, no doubt, creed, represented, though the latter is not indicated.
Ever since photography was invented in the first half of the 19th century, the taking of mug shots – “mug” meaning face – was the preferable method of recording physical descriptions of prisoners and criminals. As early as 1841, daguerreotypes were made of prisoners in France and in Brussels, Belgium. British police soon followed this trend with the hiring of the world’s first professional mug shot photographer. The systematic use of the mug shot by prisons was employed to record the images of inmates to aid the police in defeating the use of aliases.
Allan J. Pinkerton (1819-1884) established the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, Illinois, in 1850; his company’s logo, an unblinking eye with the motto “We Never Sleep,” inspired the term “private eye.” Pinkerton advanced the use of the mug shot to another level, creating a database of photographs, writing samples, criminal practices, and physical characteristics. He compiled rogues gallery books that helped significantly lower the rate of bank robberies and forgeries, and is credited with creating the earliest known “rap sheet.”
Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), a French police officer and researcher in statistical analysis of biological data, called biometrics, created an identification system based on physical measurements using the science of anthropometry. His system for identification was adopted by the Paris Prefecture de Police in 1882. While he was not the first to use the mug shot, he did contribute to the process in a significant way – in 1888, he standardized the manner in which the photographs were taken, adding the profile view to the full face “mug shot,” mounting the two images side-by-side, and recording physical characteristics and other pertinent details in a consistent form. His work became so famous that he was mentioned in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1902 classic The Hound of the Baskervilles as “the second highest expert in Europe” after Sherlock Holmes.
Robert Wilson McClaughry (1839-1920), Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, introduced the Bertillon system to the United States in 1887 after translating from French to English Bertillon’s 1885 edition of Signaletic Instructions Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification. The Bertillon system quickly became widely accepted and continued to be the standard method of criminal identification in both the United States and Europe for thirty years.
The Columbian Exhibition, aka the Chicago World’s Fair, held in Chicago in 1893, hosted an exhibit of the Bertillon System, which inspired many small town and urban police departments across the United States to use the mug shot method in this new era of scientific law enforcement.
However, once the process of fingerprinting became recognized, this anthropometric measurement system never regained its status as the principle method of criminal identification, though the two sciences were used in conjunction with each other in the ensuing decades.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The collection of mug shots in this exhibit was found in the home of Fall River, Massachusetts, native Robert Joseph Hayden (1906-2002), following his death, and was subsequently donated to the Fall River Historical Society by his family; how he acquired them is unknown.
The cards on which the photographs are mounted were published by the Yawman & Erbe Manufacturing Company of Rochester, New York, an “office specialty manufacturing company” that was well known for the production of myriad styles of filing cabinets. In addition to producing the large, sturdy cabinets required for storing mug shots, the firm also published the standardized blank cards required for implementing the Bertillion system.
The vast majority of the cards in this collection bear the imprint of Fall River’s Skelly Detective Service Inc., with others including the Fall River Police Department and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Providence, Rhode Island. It is possible, indeed likely, that the provenance of the collection in is some way connected to the Skelly Detective agency.
Founded in Fall River circa 1924 by Michael Robert Skelly (1865-1930), a twenty-eight year veteran of the Fall River Police Department who had retired in 1921 with the rank of Inspector, the successful agency specialized in “Civil and Criminal Investigations,” in addition to offering armored car services, and uniformed armed guards.
Following Skelly’s death, the firm was operated, under the same name, by his associate and next-door neighbor, David M. Connell (1869-1938), a former Fall River Police Department patrolman, who joined the agency circa 1927. Connell lost his life as a victim of the Hurricane of 1938, during which “he and his wife … were trapped in their inundated [summer] cottage” in Somerset, Massachusetts; Mrs. Connell survived the deluge.
Connell’s son, John David Connell (1905-1970), joined the firm circa 1931, ultimately serving as president and treasurer; the detective agency closed in 1969.
These mug shots, dating from 1911 to 1948, poignantly depict the seedy, little-documented underbelly of a city that was rapidly changing and on the ebb tide of once-great economic prosperity. They cover a tumultuous period in Fall River’s history; vast unemployment, poverty, and municipal receivership, followed by the Great Depression and culminating in the era of World War II.
For some of the individuals depicted in these images, petty crime was likely a way of life; for others, it was, perhaps, a misguided one-time foray, desperately undertaken as a mode of survival, or the result of some misdemeanor.
Regardless the backstory, these images are compelling records of place, time, and circumstance.