I’ve got a thing for old portraits. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even have the foggiest idea who the person was, I am just drawn to them. I recently scored an antique, oval, bubble glass, picture frame with a photograph of a WWI doughboy for the bargain price of $10. The woman running the sale was hot and tired and temporarily took leave of her senses, I think. So I threw the money on the table, snatched up my soldier, and drove away like the law was pursuing me. The strange man with the snazzy haircut is now hanging on a wall in my house, next to a portrait of an unknown relative. Why do I have a portrait of an unknown relative on my wall? Because I like her hat! It’s fancy! One of these days, I may get around to concocting a bogus story to explain the two strangers that grace my home, but for now I’m just happy to have them.
Today, we’re going to talk about some old portraits that already come with stories. Well, they’re not portraits so much as they are sort of like . . . mug shots. Okay, they are mug shots. Today, I’m going to share some of my favorite criminal mug shots from years long past.
You Ought To Be in Pictures
On June 10th of this year, the Nebraska Historical Society released a series of mug shots taken from 1867 to the turn of the century in the Nebraska Territory, revealing the wide array of crimes and even wider array of characters that wound up behind bars. As I flipped through the images I had a sense that I was looking at a catalog of the human face and all the things that can happen to it. I was drawn to the photographs by their undeniable authenticity. There was no photo-manipulation . . . no Photoshop to muddy the reality. These mug shots captured people at their lowest, at their most vulnerable. I looked hard at their faces, calculating guilt or innocence, wondering what the story was behind the arrest. I wondered how, and why. The photos are riveting, and some are amusing . . . and every one of them tells a unique story.
Worth a Thousand Words—Herbert Cochran
One of my favorite mug shots is of Herbert Cochran, who was arrested for burglary on November 24,1899. According to the Omaha Police Department’s written description of Cochran, the poor fellow already had a stooped build at the tender age of 23. Also of note is the fact that his eyebrows met at the root of his nose. At least he didn’t have a unibrow! Cochran’s occupation was listed as, “tailor.” He may have been a tailor, but he for sure was no man of the cloth! One thing stands out in Cochran’s mug shot: He’s not alone. He is being held in a headlock by an unknown police officer.
Camera Ready—James Collins
What was it with 23-yr-old Nebraska tailors turning to a life of crime? James Collins – – who, like Mr. Cochran, was a tailor, and also 23 years old – – was arrested on May 12, 1897 for burglary. From the look of his mug shot, I would guess that he didn’t go without a fight. He looks like he came straight out of an episode of “The Walking Dead.” His head is bandaged. His lip is bloody. That man should have gone back to tailoring and left the burglary to butchers or horse traders or some other heartier trade.
Ready for My Closeup—Laura Bullion
Laura Bullion was a member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. To Butch and Sundance, this natural beauty was known as “Della Rose.” This 1901 mug shot of the Rose of the Wild Bunch is from her arrest for forgery of signatures to $8,500.00 in banknotes at the Laclede Hotel in St. Louis. The stolen banknotes had been acquired from the notorious Great Northern train robbery. There was some suspicion that she had disguised herself as a boy and taken part in the Great Northern train robbery herself. Bullion was convicted of forgery and imprisoned until 1905. At the time of her arrest, her occupation was listed as prostitute. After her release from prison in 1918, she moved to Memphis, where she assumed the identity of a war widow and worked as a seamstress, drapery maker, and interior decorator.
Say Cheese—George Ray
Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking. Smile, even though you’re going up on manslaughter charges! George Ray was all smiles in 1888, which is surprising for a man who was about to go to prison for ten years.
Pretty as a Picture—Bertha Liebbeke
Bertha’s mug shots make her look like she should be working in the kitchen, baking her own bread, but, in reality, she was a notorious pickpocket. Liebbeke would pretend to faint, smack into the arms of a well-dressed man. She was not a wisp of a woman, so I have no doubt she startled many a man. While the man was holding her sizable figure, “Fainting Bertha” would go for the grab.
Jim Ling was arrested in 1898 for operating an opium joint. Don’t worry. That wasn’t his real profession. If the note on the back of his mug shot is to be believed, Ling was a professional thief. He should have gone into a more respectable profession like tailoring, instead!
Watch the Birdie—Mental Case
This is one of the more modern mug shots, but I couldn’t resist including it in the mix. The only identifier on the 1940’s mug shot from Louisiana is, “MENTAL CASE.” There are days I can relate to that!
Picture Perfect—Goldie Williams
Goldie Williams (aka, Meg Murphy) was a woman who didn’t take any guff from anyone. At least that’s what I’m guessing by the look of her mug shot! Williams was arrested for vagrancy in 1898. Her physical description was listed as 5’ tall and 110 pounds. Her arrest took place in Nebraska, but her home was listed as Chicago, where she made her living as a prostitute. She may have been small, but I wouldn’t have wanted to cross her! I would, however, like to hang her portrait on my wall. It’s probably the fancy hat that does it for me!
I could go on and on, but I will stop here and let you take over! You can view all of the mugshots recently released by the Nebraska Historical Society here on their website. And I think that you will enjoy this brief video of historical mugshots of women, taken during the turn of the century until approximately 1940. Oh . . . the stories they tell. . .