Mug Shots From The 1800s And The Criminal Stories That Accompany Them
Updated: Oct 17
Mugshot photography revolutionised crime investigations and enabled the police to keep visual records of the arrested criminals.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, police photographed the faces of known criminals. Called “mug shots” (after the British slang word “mug” meaning “face”) these images replaced drawings and descriptions on wanted posters. Scientists even studied mug shots to see if physical traits could predict criminal behaviour.
If convicted, men had another set of images taken after their hair and beards were shaved off to limit the spread of lice. Women’s hair was not shaved.
The Nebraska State Penitentiary used photography beginning in 1867 to record the likeness of the state’s most infamous residents. The Omaha police photographed suspects when arrested.
Whether the people depicted were guilty or innocent, behind every photograph is a human story. These photographs of the Nebraska State Penitentiary and Omaha Police Court Collections offer a glimpse into the life of some random people more than 130 years ago.
Many of the offenders in these mug shots were arrested for “grand larceny”. The crime of larceny is to deprive another person of their property, and the term is still used in the U.S. Larceny “from a person” refers to pickpockets.
Another term that appears is “mayhem,” which refers to the permanent disfigurement or disabling of another person.
The reactions these men and women had to being photographed varies. For instance, Herbert Cockran had to be restrained in a headlock; Minnie Bradley refused to look at the camera. George Ray, who served 10 years for manslaughter, managed a smile.
James Whitewater killed two men. While in prison from 1872-1889, he embraced Christianity. In 1889, the Nebraska legislature passed an act allowing the governor to pardon two inmates who had “been in jail more than 10 years or whose conduct while incarcerated merited such mercy.”
Albert Johnson arrived at the Nebraska State Prison sporting an impressive handlebar moustache. Johnson was sentenced to one year and six months for grand larceny. Because of prison policy to reduce lice, authorities shaved Johnson’s head and facial hair.
Detailed descriptions and mug shots were important to police and prison authorities. Criminals easily changed names and created numerous identities. Typically, three mug shots were taken of each prisoner.
Smiling faces in Victorian-era photographs are rare; George H. Ray grinning in a prison mug shot is truly unusual. Ray served 10 years for manslaughter in the late 1890s.
People rarely smiled in 19th-century photographs. Long exposure times are often blamed for the lack of happy faces.
By the end of the 19th century, advances in photographic technology reduced exposures to seconds but having a photograph taken by a professional remained a serious and sometimes sober occasion.
James Collins was arrested in Omaha on May 12, 1897, for burglary. In his mug shot, Collin’s head has been bandaged. According to the police record, Collins escaped and was rearrested.
The 23-year-old Omaha tailor was sent to the Nebraska State Prison on March 19, 1898, to serve a five-year sentence.
Goldie Williams defiantly crossed her arms for her Omaha Police Court mug shot. Arrested for vagrancy on Jan. 29, 1898, Williams, also known as Meg Murphy, stood only five feet tall and weighed 110 pounds, according to police records.
She listed her home as Chicago and her occupation as prostitute. According to her arrest descriptions, her left index finger was broken and she had a cut below her right wrist. Williams sports an elaborate hat with satin ribbons and feathers. She also wears large hoop earrings.
Three burglars blew up a safe in a bank vault in Sheridan, Missouri, on the night of Feb. 15, 1898. They got away with about $2,400.
The bank’s insurance company hired the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency and sent Assistant Superintendent F.H. Tollotson to hunt down the burglars. Tollotson tracked one of the wanted men through Missouri to Council Bluffs and eventually to a room at the Sheridan Hotel in Omaha.
With the aid of the Omaha police, Tollotson apprehended a gun-welding fugitive after a brief struggle. The alleged bank robber gave his name as Charles Martin, but had several letters addressed to Charles Davis.
Martin was unknown to Omaha police, but some detectives speculated to newspaper reporters he could be the notorious safe blower and bank robber Sam Welsh.
At the time of his arrest, Martin had a gold watch and $565 in cash believed to be his share of the spoils of the Missouri bank robbery.
Martin was taken to the police court where he was measured, photographed and locked up while he awaited his transfer to Missouri.
Omaha police arrested Jim Ling for operating an opium joint, on June 3, 1898. The back of his mug shot lists his occupation as thief. Ling was described as five feet, six inches tall and weighing 104 pounds with black hair and hazel eyes.
An unidentified member of the Omaha police force holds Herbert Cockran in a headlock during his mug shot. Cockran was arrested on Nov. 24, 1899, for burglary.
A tailor from Fairmont, Nebraska, Cockran had a slightly stooped build with a fair complexion and his eyebrows met at the root of his nose, according to the police description.
A double murder rocked the tiny town of Odessa, Buffalo County on the night of Dec. 4, 1899. Lillian Dinsmore was found dead in the kitchen of the house in which she and her charismatic husband Frank L. Dinsmore boarded. Fred Laue, the boarding house owner was shot in his bedroom.
The Dinsmores had been married only a year. According to Fred Laue’s wife, Mr. Dinsmore became obsessed with her and seduced her.
Unhappy in his marriage, Dinsmore supposedly plotted to kill his young wife and murder Laue. After she was murdered, Lillian Dinsmore’s brothers accused Dinsmore of using hypnotic powers on their vulnerable sister.
After hearing the accusation, Mrs. Laue also claimed to be a victim of Dinsmore’s hypnotic influence. The Dinsmore case became a newspaper sensation.
He vehemently denied all the charges even after the guilty verdict was read, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. Dinsmore’s lawyers appealed the sentence and Governor Dietrich stepped in to commute his sentence to life in prison.
Dinsmore posed for his mug shot at the Nebraska State Prison wearing a simple white cotton shirt, sack jacket and striped prison-issue trousers.
Mrs. Adams was arrested in Omaha for blackmail. She listed her residence as Palisade, Nebraska, and her occupation as prostitute. The police record describes her as five feet, one inch tall with a medium build and a sallow complexion.
Bert Martin was sentenced for stealing a horse in Keya Paha County. At the prison, Bert worked in the broom factory.
One day, Bert’s cellmate of 11 months told the prison authorities a secret: Bert was really a woman named Lena Martin. In sparsely settled Keya Paha County, Lena’s masculine appearance allowed her to find work as a cowboy. Prison records show Martin was transferred to the women’s division on Sept. 22, 1901.
When Martin was sentenced, a woman, believed to be Martin’s wife stood beside him. Martin was sentenced to two years.
The Governor of Nebraska Ezra P. Savage said of her: “a sexual monstrosity, unfit for association with men or women even in a penal institution, and on the solemn promise of its aged mother to care for it and guard it, and that prison morals imperatively demanded its removal, the sentence was commuted to one year, six months, Feb. 3, 1902.”
Nora Courier was better known as “Red Nora.” On March 31, 1901, Omaha police arrested Nora for stealing a horse. According to police court records, she was 22 years old and stood five feet, three inches tall. She had slate blue eyes and a scar on the centre of her forehead.
Bertha Liebbeke earned the reputation of being one of the Midwest’s most notorious pickpockets. She would search out a well-dressed man, ideally with a diamond-studded lapel pin.
Bertha would then “accidentally” stumble into the helpless victim, pretending to faint in his arms. While he attempted to help her, Bertha would relieve the gentleman of his valuables or wallet.
This trick earned her the nickname “Fainting Bertha.” Authorities from Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska knew Bertha and her tricks.
Her aliases included Bertha Liebke, Jennie Jennings, Bertha Nixon, J. Armstrong, Carrie Jones, Bessie Milles, Menni Swilson and Bertha Siegel, the name on her Omaha Police Court mug shot.
On Nov. 1, 1903, Eli Feasel disappeared from his farm southwest of Bostwick, Nebraska, about 15 miles east of Red Cloud. His housekeeper, Nannie Hutchinson (pictured below), said he went to visit his son in Kansas City. Feasel’s brother, Thomas, grew suspicious when inquiries found no trace of Eli.
The investigation led to the arrest of the housekeeper and her 21-year-old son Charles. With little evidence that a crime had been committed, they were released after their hearing.
The following spring, a Mr. Stanley began farming Eli Feasel’s place. While working in a field, he found what appeared to be a newly opened grave.
Upon close examination, authorities discovered a human hand, some hair from a man’s head, part of a coat with an empty whisky bottle in the pocket, and other pieces of clothing.
Authorities believed Charles Hutchinson had seen Mr. Stanley plowing the field where the grave was later discovered. Charles began to act suspiciously. On May 6, he rented a buggy.
He said was going to assist in taking the rig to Starke Ranch at Amboy, about five miles east. The next morning, Charles returned the rig to the livery stable in Red Cloud and paid the usual fee to Amboy.
The team of horses used by Charles appeared to have had a longer drive than a trip to Amboy. Stable workers also noticed a terrible stench emanating from the rented buggy and cushions.
They paid little attention to it until Mr. Stanley discovered the open grave in Eli Feasel’s place. With the new evidence, authorities quickly rearrested Charles and his mother Nannie.
Authorities believed that on the night Charles rented the buggy, he and his mother returned to the site where they had hidden Feasel’s body in order to move the remains.
The Hutchinson’s had left telltale clues behind them: footprints of a man and woman corresponding to their shoe sizes. At trial, the Hutchinsons were found guilty of second-degree murder.
Mary Shannon was sentenced to two years in the Nebraska State Prison for mayhem in May 1925. Her records do not explain what she did to be charged with mayhem.
A legal definition of mayhem is “the criminal act of disabling, disfiguring, or cutting off or making useless one of the members (leg, arm, hand, foot, eye) of another either intentionally or in a fight, called maiming.”
The serious nature of the injury makes mayhem a felony, which is called “aggravated assault” in most states.
In February 1926, Frank Carter, dubbed the “Omaha Sniper,” terrorised the city of Omaha. He shot people at random, sometimes using a silencer on his pistol.
Omaha newspapers recommended a blackout, as people were shot as they stood at their lighted windows. Carter brought Omaha to a standstill, with empty streets, for over a week.
He was captured on Feb. 26 and tried for the murder of two people, but he claimed to have killed 43. His lawyers tried to plead insanity, but he was found guilty and executed by electrocution in June 1927. Carter’s last words were reported to have been “let the juice flow.”