From Click To Clink: A History Of Mug Shots In The Quaker City

 

In 2017 former District Attorney Seth Williams put a group of Philadelphia police officers on a secret list of department employees with troubling records. That roster, inherited by new District Attorney Larry Krasner, became public earlier this year after a judge ordered its release. DA Krasner is currently developing a new, comprehensive roster with data spanning a decade that will reveal police officers with a history of civil rights violations, racial profiling, excessive force, and lying while on duty. Such lists, which are commonly used in other cities, are intended to warn prosecutors of police who might prove problematic as witnesses. This may be because they could potentially have a history of false testimony, recorded biases, or legal troubles that court rules require be shared with defense attorneys. The current list of Philadelphia police rogues contains the names of roughly 66 officers.

Another list of Quaker City criminals has been in Philadelphia since the early 1840s, when pen and paper sketches of particularly notorious local rogues were circulated publicly. Within 20 years, photography would turn the rudimentary practice of collecting mugshots in to a formalized “Rogues’ Gallery.”

In 1855, Allan Pinkerton founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago and devised the first Rogues’ Gallery—a compilation of descriptions, methods of operation, hiding places, and names of criminals and their associates. The San Francisco Police Department may have started the practice about the same time. By 1858, New York City had a collection of some 450 ambrotypes (images on glass plates). From these early instances, the practice of collecting criminal mug shots spread across the nation and around the world.

Philadelphia’s improved Rogues’ Gallery, in 1884 | From The Philadelphia Police, Past and Present, Illustrated with Portraits and Etchings by Howard O. Sprogle, 1887

The use of photographs for this a purpose in Philadelphia first occurred in 1860 when the Police Department officially established its own Rogues’ Gallery. By then, camera exposure time had been cut from minutes to seconds, thus making mug shot portraiture practical. Note also that the use of photography in crime fighting was new technology before the Civil War, and Philadelphia was the nation’s leading city for photography in that era.

Chief of Detectives Joseph Wood immediately began work on creating Philadelphia’s Rogues’ Gallery in 1859. He had been captain and superintendent of the watch under the old system of city policing, whereby the individual districts of the city maintained their own police forces. Wood had worked in the District of Spring Garden, which, in the 1840s and 1850s, was a fashionable neighborhood and one of the nicest places of the city, although it was still close to the criminal element that resided primarily in Philadelphia proper (South to Vine Streets). The Consolidation Act of the City of Philadelphia of 1854 had merged all the municipalities of Philadelphia County into one immense city, thus helping secure the entire locality with more integrated police and fire services.

Previous to his work as a policeman, Chief Wood had gained valuable information on the Philadelphia’s criminal element as a reporter for the Public Ledger. This knowledge must have helped him devise an image-based system of keeping track of the city’s law breakers. Philadelphia’s Rogues’ Gallery seems to have been an informal system of keeping photographs of the city’s criminals and it is uncertain whether or not conviction was necessary to be included in the gallery. The images were not kept under lock and key or withheld from the public, as was done by the 1880s. The pictures were initially available for viewing by anyone who wished to satisfy his or her curiosity.

The system seems to have been successful, as many important convictions were secured through means of the Rogues’ Gallery in the 1860s and 1870s. According to the Mayor’s Annual Report of 1863, “The Rogues’ Gallery has had some thirty-five photographs added to it during the year, and while it gives useful information to the patrol forces, it frequently occurs that parties making complaints [i.e., crime victims] at once recognize the criminal in the gallery.”

Mayor Daniel M. Fox, in office from 1869 to 1872, kept a private Rogues’ Gallery for himself. Two years after leaving office he was able to detect a pickpocket on a streetcar and had the man arrested. 

By the 1880s, Chief of Police Francis R. Kelly came into office and improved the Rogues’ Gallery by procuring a large walnut case for the detectives’ office. Designed and patented by Police Detective Thomas Adams of New York, the cabinet stood about five feet high and had ten walnut racks that pivoted on one side, thus opening like the leaves of a huge book. This made the thing practically a large photo album and increased the gallery’s utility by enabling faster identification of criminals by both patrolling officers and crime victims.

The ten leaves held 2,000 card photographs arranged in rows of 10 pictures—or 100 to each page. Burglars, counterfeiters, forgers, pickpockets, jewelry thieves, bank thieves, and so on were arranged together under appropriate headings. On the back of each mug shot was the name of the individual pictured, with details concerning his personality, demeanor, and appearance. An index of these photographic cards was also kept in the form of a descriptive book that gave the name, age, height, distinguishing marks, and other particulars of each criminal.

Chief of Police Francis R. Kelly | From The Philadelphia Police, Past and Present, Illustrated with Portraits and Etchings by Howard O. Sprogle, 1887

Duplicate images from other cities were also added to Philadelphia’s mug shot collection, and the City sent out duplicates in return. Photographers taking portraits of criminals were also instructed to sell copies of the photos to any detective agency requesting to buy them.

The notion of taking a criminal’s mug shot was not universally accepted for many years around the country. In an 1883 article in the Photographic Times and American Photographer, the author recalls an incident in New York City that gave rise to this line of inquiry. “Inasmuch as this is supposed to be a country governed by law, it would be interesting to know in accordance with what law policemen can forcibly compel a man to be photographed in order to make him infamous by hanging his photograph in a gallery of portraits of noted criminals. It thus appears that the police may seize upon any citizen, drag him to a photographer’s studio, and there give him the option of either furnishing the Rogues’ Gallery with his photograph or of being committed to jail for disorderly conduct for resisting the effort to steal his portrait. If this sort of thing happened in Russia, we should call it intolerable tyranny. As it happens here, we merely notice it as a curious and interesting incident.”

Despite arguments against mug shots, the Rogues’ Gallery was here to stay. Philadelphia ultimately adopted the Bertillon system of criminal identification, based on the science of anthropometry, which focuses on measuring and recording different parts of the human body. Generally, law enforcement of the late 19th century believed that each individual had a unique combination of measurements of body parts, and comparing these measurements could be used to distinguish between individuals. Furthermore, the idea of photographing crime scenes came into vogue as an investigative tool by the end of the century.

The number of criminals eventually outgrew the 10 leaves of Chief Kelly’s cabinet by the turn of the 20th century, so the Rogues’ Gallery was reorganized and systematized in 1907. The revamped system became book-based and remained this way for much of the 20th century. Shelves of huge dusty tomes contained criminal images and charge sheets, as well as fingerprints and other data. The Rogues’ Gallery is still an important aspect of police work in all police departments, although the images and the information are now all digital.

The following is a collection of Philadelphia mug shots taken during the 1950s and 1960s. They were complied in the book, Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots by Mark Michaelson. A special thank you to the author for permission to use the photographs.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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7 Comments


  1. Joseph J. Menkevich

    The photos are an interesting statement!

  2. Compelling images in macabre sort of way! These forlorn faces run the gamut from someones dear old granny to that of a souless serial killer! Nonetheless a diverse collection of Phillys own!

  3. I can almost hear the accents like in a film from the 30s – Cagneyesque voices telling of their crimes.

  4. Editor: Thanks for finding and inserting these photos!

  5. I was doing some pro-bono search angel work for a person who was put up for adoption back in 1948, when I learned through comparing her DNA test results with others that some of them too were also put up for adoption. Soon I ended up with what turned out to be a group of four people who were put up for adoption as infants. The search for a common ancestor among them has led me to a pair of known New York City swindlers, Horace A. Blackmur and his wife ‘Margaret Smith'(Margaret Vanartsdale). According to a New York Times article dated 21 Aug 1907, which read in part “He and his companion were photographed, measured and had their thumbprints taken for the Rogues’ gallery” they were taken into custody in Philadelphia on or about that date. Since the adoptees I’m working with have no decent photos of any family members, I’m hoping you could you tell me how to find the Rogues’ gallery photos of Horace A Blackmur and Margaret Smith, since after all, something would be better than nothing, even mugshots. Is there an online archive somewhere, or would I have to take a trip to Philadelphia to do this?

    Thank you for any help and advice you can send my way!

    – Rich

    • I’m sorry, but I cannot help you any further. Not only did I write this piece quite some time ago, but also moved, thus requiring packing up my books. Still, even if I didn’t move, I doubt that I could help you further. This is, after all, probably the only piece I’ll ever publish dealing with the police of Philadelphia…

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