Despite the oft-repeated mantra of America’s criminal-justice system—that one is innocent until proven guilty—mugshots suggest otherwise. Although these images simply document an arrest, for more than a century, the ubiquity of such photos in news coverage and entertainment media has implied guilt, deviance, and bad behavior. The subjects captured in vintage mugshots may have been brought in under bogus charges by corrupt officers, or arrested for crimes no longer considered criminal, like adultery, begging, or expressing communist beliefs. But mugshots often outlive the truth.
“Sometimes even when found guilty, they’re truly innocent.”
The roots of this photographic tradition date to the very beginning of the medium itself: During the 1840s, when photography was still very new, police departments armed with the technology began displaying daguerreotype portraits of potentially dangerous suspects and convicts. “At times it took many hands to hold the criminal quietly before the camera, and many silver-coated copper-plates were spoiled, due to the long exposure necessary for the production of a daguerreotype,” Theodore Kytke wrote in the March, 1901, issue of “Camera Craft” about the San Francisco Police Department’s photo sessions. “The pictures thus obtained were kept on exhibition in the Captain’s office, so that patrolmen might familiarize themselves with the features of the rogues, and watch their actions and movements upon their release from the State Prison, which at this time was the big Euphemia, converted into a prison ship.”
In his article, Kytka claimed that San Francisco created the first so-called “rogues’ gallery” meant to educate law enforcement and local citizens, but in reality, mugshots were already in use in other cities. As printing technology improved, images and their corresponding notes were often compiled into hardbound albums, making these archives easier to search quickly. However, little was done to coordinate efforts between municipalities or create a centralized database of photos.
That changed in 1886, when Thomas Byrnes, a well-known New York City police chief, published a book titled Professional Criminals of America, which grouped hundreds of criminal photographic portraits from across the country in a single place. “There cannot be the slightest doubt but that it will prove an important medium in the prevention and detection of crime,” reads the book’s introduction by Frederick Smyth. “In my estimation the circulation of the volume will tend to familiarize the public with the faces, appearance and methods of the army of malefactors who, with keen eyes and active brains, are forever watching and planning to their detriment.”
Two years later, an officer for the Paris Police Prefecture named Alphonse Bertillon created the mugshot as we know it: Two images side-by-side, one taken in profile and another from the front. Along with a set of standardized bodily measurements, these doubleview images made up the “Bertillon System” (though his detailed list of measurements was soon improved upon by another new technology called fingerprinting).
Bertillon’s innovation appeared at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and was quickly adopted throughout America’s largest cities. The Bertillon System also had the backing of the scientific community: At the time, the eugenics movement—which promoted selective breeding to eliminate specific types of people—was gaining popularity, and many anthropologists believed in a pseudoscience known as physiognomy, which asserted that certain facial features were linked with criminality.
Since then, Americans have been inundated with mugshot photography, from the FBI’s “Most Wanted” lists to the alleged debauchery featured in celebrity tabloids. But it’s the older mugshots that remain most alluring. While a few vintage arrest photos include pertinent information about their subjects, many mugshots that have escaped law-enforcement archives are devoid of context, a glimpse of an arrest whose outcome we will never know. They capture people dressed to the nines and smiling defiantly, as well as others bruised and bloodied from some unexplained act of violence.
Mark Michaelson, who’s been collecting vintage mugshots since the 1990s, refers to these photos—and the people in them—as the “least wanted.” “History typically only records the stories of the rich and famous,” he explains, “but I think the stories of the nobodies or the everyman need to be remembered as well.” As an art director and graphic designer, Michaelson was also drawn to the visual appeal of mugshots, these artful collages of text and image, some of which he has repurposed for his own street-art posters. In 2006, Michaelson published a selection of his mugshot archive as a book entitled Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots, which combined these striking images with essays about the history and power of mugshot photography. We recently spoke with Michaelson about his mugshot collection and the stories unearthed by his photographic obsession.
Collectors Weekly: How did you first get into mugshots?
Mark Michaelson: I’ve always been drawn to “Wanted” posters; there’s something sexy and dangerous about the photos on them. I also grew up with a father who was a lawyer, and I’m sure he was a big influence. When I was around 10 or 11, I had a friend over to the house for dinner, and my father was going on about some violent case he was working on. My brother and I enjoyed the story, as usual, but my friend Steven ran from the table and threw up in the bathroom. I also remember going with my father to the city jail to bail out clients. Once, I went with him to pick up a young client who’d escaped from custody while handcuffed. We met up with him at a bus stop, his hands still cuffed behind his back.
When I ran across my first mugshot, it was love at first sight. This was 1995, and my best friend Ron Hauge—the brilliant comic artist and writer for “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons”—turned me on to eBay. Ron had been collecting odd and unusual historical relics, like the “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper, teacups from the Hindenburg, a twisted piece of metal from the plane that hit the Empire State Building in 1945, and aviator “Wrong Way” Corrigan’s driver’s license. He was finding amazing things online, and for my birthday, Ron gave me an authentic Patty Hearst “Wanted” poster. It was the perfect gift for me; I loved it.
I’ve always been a pack rat, but I never had any particular focus. Having been a magazine art director for 30 years, I gravitated towards ephemera, including photos, printed material, magazines, books, and comics. Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of the original illustrations I assigned for magazines. I always had a box or a drawer where I’d toss anything of interest and wait to see if anyone missed it. The first printed piece I made as a graphic designer was actually an anti-shoplifting poster for the state of Rhode Island with the tagline: “Sticky Fingers Will Get You in a Jam!” It wasn’t until I saw my first vintage mugshot that it all came together.
My first search on eBay was for “wanted poster,” and after some clicking around, I ran across an actual mugshot. It was a gorgeous doubleview photo of a man from Minneapolis, circa 1930s, attached to a card inside a manila sleeve, which was typewritten, rubber-stamped, and stapled. The text read, “A closed-mouth negro, probably committing burglaries. Allegedly stole several pairs of stockings.” It was more than a photo: It was a collage, an artifact, a ready-made, and a work of Pop art—all my fetishes combined. The opening bid was $5, and I won the auction without competition. I was hooked. I immediately sought out another, and my collection grew along with my obsession. I soon had a notebook full, then a box of notebooks, and now, too many to count.
Collectors Weekly: Do you look for anything specific when buying photos?
Michaelson: My general idea was to avoid anyone famous or particularly violent or scary. Mugshots of famous gangsters and celebrities are popular, but I’m interested in something else—the small timers or the ones who fell through the cracks. When I was in Rome and saw the ruins, I wasn’t thinking about Caesar; I wanted to know about the guy who laid bricks in the Forum. What did he wear? Where did he go after work? Where did he live? What did he eat and drink?
I feel like an archaeologist trying to find and preserve these records of the common man, most of which are treated like trash and destroyed once they’re no longer in use. Over time, I accumulated an enormous cast of characters, and I called my collection the “least wanted.” Men and women. Young and old. Rich and poor. They’re so-called transvestites, communists, hop-heads, pimps, hookers, stooges, grifters, and goons. Punks, sneaks, mooks, and miscreants. Heartbreaking and hilarious.
And they had to be real photographs—printed “Wanted” posters didn’t satisfy me. In an increasingly digital world, the hard-copy original is an endangered species. These types of municipal documents are meant to be destroyed when obsolete, so it’s rare when they slip out into circulation.
Collectors Weekly: How has the format of mugshots evolved?
Michaelson: The history of mugshots is basically the history of photography. It wasn’t really until the emergence of cartes de visites that photography was used widely by police departments and prisons. Some of the earliest-known mugshots are from Paris, after the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, when portraits were taken of convicted criminals. A few years later, in 1888, a clerk for the Paris police named Alphonse Bertillon developed the now-familiar format of the doubleview—two portraits with one taken from the front and another in profile. Bertillon also developed a system for classifying individuals based on measurements of the human body, which were easy to transmit via telegraph. (This was before fingerprints were able to be cataloged.) As each new innovation in photography emerged, they were quickly adopted by the police for use in mugshots.
A few years ago, I was contacted by a fashion historian from Finland who told me how helpful my online collection of mugshots was for her work, since they were mostly dated photographs showing people wearing clothes. She often dates unmarked photos based on the clothes the subjects were wearing, so I sent her some of what I believed to be my earliest images and asked her to date them. She said a particular lapel on the jacket of one guy was an example of Victorian Era working-class clothing, probably from about 1870. She also said it wasn’t likely the subject was wearing new clothes, which added ten years to her estimate, placing the photo around 1880.
Collectors Weekly: Do most mugshots include information about the subject and their crime?
Michaelson: Some of the photos come attached to cards that contain various information, fingerprints, etc., and these clues always add to the experience. But often, the photo comes with nothing but a date, or sometimes not even a date. In these cases, you’re invited to fill in the gaps and invent a narrative.
The intact volumes used by police departments are the Holy Grails of mugshot collecting. I’ve bought many photos that have been gutted from the original pages, or even whole pages cut from the binding. It makes me cry, but I guess a greedy dealer can make much more money cutting up a book than keeping it whole. Over the years, I’ve managed to acquire a few large ledgers containing hundreds of mugshots, and they’re amazing. There’s always at least two or three knockout photos per spread. And to scan the whole cast of characters together really shows how these photos were meant to classify. The frames and compositions are meant to be identical so that differences are more apparent. Plus, you’re seeing a bunch of people all in the same place and more or less same time in history. It’s a real rogues gallery.
These images are examples of vernacular photography, which were not originally meant to have an aesthetic value, and shot by amateur or unknown photographers. I’m not a historian or social scientist or forensic photography expert—my collection consists of images that passed the filter of my sensibilities and contain some sort of magic or elicit some kind of response. They seem to fascinate people from all walks of life, far beyond the traditional borders of the art and photography worlds. I’m surprised I haven’t gotten tired of it all yet, but I’m still crazy about these pictures and the faces in them. It’s an obsession. To this day, my favorite picture is always my most recent acquisition.
Collectors Weekly: Why do some mugshots show several people in a single photo?
Michaelson: Photos of multiple people, which I call line-ups, were probably used when a group of offenders was arrested together. I have several examples of these from New York in the 1930s and ’40s, during the Murder Inc. days, when all the crime families cooperated and what we think of as “organized crime” really began. There are photos that seem to depict mixed groups—Irish, Italians, and Jews; whites and blacks; and men and women—all arrested together.
Collectors Weekly: Have you found mugshots of people who wouldn’t be considered criminals today?
Michaelson: Well, I’ve got tons of mugshots of children and teens. One of the youngest is a 13-year old car thief with an incredible blonde pompadour. I also have photos of a “till-tapper,” the proprietor of a “bawdy house,” and every kind of pick pocket, prostitute, and chicken thief you can imagine. They’re not so much crimes that aren’t illegal today, but many examples of people arrested without much reason, or examples of prejudice and injustice. The people in these mugshots are all innocent until proven guilty, and sometimes even when found guilty, they’re truly innocent.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any wild stories you’ve come across in your research?
Michaelson: There are so many amazing stories, but I think my favorite is probably about the armless bandit. There was this guy named George Cooper, who lost both arms in an accident when he was a boy and went on to lead a criminal gang. In 1922, Cooper was eventually arrested, convicted, and sent to prison. While an inmate, he required a valet to feed, dress, and wash him, which proved to be too much of a nuisance for the prison authorities. Because of this he was soon released, only to return to his criminal occupation. I ran across Cooper’s mugshot on eBay. He bore a striking resemblance to a young Matt Damon. When the mugshot arrived, it was accompanied by several newspaper clippings describing his various exploits.
Collectors Weekly: What other projects has your collection inspired?
Michaelson: I’m a big fan of street art, and back in 2007, I stumbled onto some photos of street-art murals in France that were being made from the faces in my book. They were gorgeous, painted by a crew of artists in Paris led by a guy named C215, who’s a major figure in the graffiti world. I wrote to tell him how much I liked the work and how gratified I was that he and his crew had found inspiration in my project. He responded: “Oh shit, I thought you’d be pissed!” So I invited them to use anything they wanted from my collection, and about a year later, C215 set up a show for me and the artists inspired by “Least Wanted” to take place in a decommissioned jail in Bristol, England [Banksy’s hometown].
The artists painted murals in half the cells, and in the other half, I created installations with big Andy Warhol-style blowup prints. It was a huge success, and word traveled all around the street-art world. My “Least Wanted” project was listed along with the names of many well-known artists, and it gave me instant credibility. When I returned to New York, I was inspired to take my pictures to the street, so in the middle of the night, I wheatpasted large blowups all over lower Manhattan. Graffiti websites started reporting that “Least Wanted” was spotted in SoHo! Currently, I’m planning a pop-up gallery exhibit in my new hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, for October.
Collectors Weekly: Having seen thousands of mugshots, do any patterns emerge?
Michaelson: I’ve got photos of every race and creed, and I’m constantly reorganizing my collection. At one point it was organized by place and time, then chronologically, and then I reshuffled based on the alleged crime. After that, I arranged them based on “punctum,” or the images that give you a little pinch when you see them. Now I’m separating the men from the women, since I’m working on a new book of mugshots that will be all women. The working title is Broads, Dames, Dolls and Dishes. With the mugshots of men, some are great, but many are boring. With the women, each and every one of them is killer.
Anna McCabe, an 18-year-old stock girl in a dry-goods house, was arrested in Union, New Jersey, in 1911 for abandonment.
(For more amazing images, check out Michaelson’s flickr page and his book, “Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.” If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)