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An Introduction To Mug Shot Photography
by Richard T. Rosenthal

The photographing of criminals for identification purposes began shortly after the invention of photography in 1839. "In November 1841, the Munchen Morgenblatt reports: "The Paris Police now have daguerreotypes of the features of all criminals passing through its hands and attaches these portraits to the respective reports. When set free and suspected of a new crime, the portrait is shown to all police officers, who seek out their man.(Tuttle, p.6). The Philadelphia Public Ledger of November 30, 1841 also had something to say on the matter of photographing criminals:

"When a discovery has been made in science there is no telling at the time to what useful purpose it may afterwards be applied. The beautiful process invented by Daguerre, of painting with sunbeams, has been recently applied to aid the police in suppressing crime. When any suspicious person or criminal is arrested in France, the officers have him immediately daguerreotyped and he is likewise placed in the criminal cabinet for future reference. The rogues, to defeat this objective, resort to contortions of the visage and horrible grimaces."(Tuttle, p.4).


(Two mug shots of the same man who changed his appearance in order to fool the police. P.A.Chase, Wanted for Forgery, 1889)

These early attempts at photographing criminals were certainly not as well organized as the news report in the Ledger suggests. The first efforts at making photographic records of criminals were probably done more for their novelty value rather than for the serious purpose of identification. Little thought had been given as to how this new technology might be used in the battle against crime. Therefore, no systematic procedure yet existed for the recording, classifying, or distributing of the information gathered. However, isolated examples of early photographs of criminals continued to be taken.

 

A few far sighted men did indeed recognize the role photography might play in the area of criminal identification. With the widespread appearance of photography in general the use of photography in criminal investigation and identification expanded. A great deal of information and images were being gathered however, there was no system yet in place to make the information manageable and useful in the area of crime detection and prevention. An effective classification system was finally developed by Alphonse Bertillon in 1882. Bertillon combined criminal identification photographs with physical measurements of the subject. Soon detectives began to rely upon photographs as the major method of criminal identification. However, this method was not infallible and mistakes did occur.

With the development of fingerprint identification as an absolutely reliable method of criminal identification in 1897, mug shots took their place as an important adjunct in the process of identifying criminals.

 

 

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  April 19, 2014

An  assortment of  19th and 20th century photographs 
taken  by anonymous 
&
  still obscure photographers

                                                                                 Copyright 2000 
                                                                    by Richard T. Rosenthal. All rights reserved.