Mug Shots From The 1800s And The Criminal Stories That Accompany Them
Updated: Mar 25
Mug shot photography revolutionized 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.