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A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Arrests:

The History of Rogues’ Galleries

© 2015 - Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved

NYPD Rogues Gallery
NYPD’s Rogues’ Gallery - circa 1909

Before photography, even before there was an established hierarchy for investigation and detection, identifying criminals was a challenge. Without the benefit of “wanted” posters and mugshots, the process relied solely on eye witnesses.

Some courts, in stereotypical Puritanical fashion, made it easy for known offenders to be recognized. As in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, adulterers in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) were made to wear the letter “A.” Those who engaged in incestuous relations wore the letter “I.” Thieves wore “T” and blasphemers “B.” Sometimes the letter was sewn to a sleeve or dress. Others wore the letter like a necklace. It is a practice thought to have been brought from England, as was a more beastly punishment: branding offenders with a hot iron.

Although eventually abandoned, branding (also known as stigmatizing) criminals was common even into the 1800s. In 1639, a Boston woman repeatedly found guilty of adultery was whipped, sentenced to wear the scarlet letter, and - if found without her badge - was to be burned on the face. The scar would serve as an indelible testimony to her wrongdoing.

As attitudes and science evolved, these punishments were repealed in favor of lesser, or no, consequences. It became obvious to many that publicly demeaning offenders also drew unwanted attention to their victims. Public humiliation also did little to curtail recidivism, especially as populations burgeoned. No longer did the citizenry know every neighbor by face or name. Without these personal ties, make a drunkard stand in the city square with a “D” sewn to his shirt just seemed cruel.

By the 1790s, emphasis was changing from punishment and identification to just identification. It was at this time that several New York prisons began creating detailed conviction dockets. Their concern was no longer simply embarrassing perpetrators of past crimes, but rather collecting data that could assist in the solution of future crimes as well.

In the 1840s, French authorities came up with an even better way of keeping track of criminals: daguerreotypes. Unlike photos printed on paper, daguerreotype images were laid on silver. It was an expensive process, but one soon used in Great Britain as well.

A decade after daguerreotypes were first utilized - and ten years before the American “wanted” poster became a standard fixture in post offices - Swiss authorities began circulating photos of criminals. But it was the New York City Police Department, in 1858, that first opened a rogues’ gallery to the public.

In retrospect, we now realize that the NYCPD didn’t just create the first publicly accessible database of criminals; iIt also invented a new technique: crime prevention. Residents of the city were invited to peruse the gallery so they could recognize criminals on the street. Knowing what perpetrators looked like made falling victim avoidable. And, alerting police to the presence of criminals made cautious surveillance or quick arrests possible.

There were those, in and out of law enforcement, who worried about the unintended consequences of rogues’ galleries. For instance, should men and women questioned, but not arrested, be photographed? And what of children? A photograph circulated throughout multiple counties or states could tarnish a young person’s reputation forever. Weren’t the youngest offenders particularly wanting of a chance to redeem themselves? Eventually the courts did weigh in on these issues. Several states determined that photos could not be added to rogues’ galleries until after a conviction. Others decreed an innocent person could obtain an injunction against inclusion, even if the photo was only for purposes of identification. In the 1890s, Pennsylvania officials banned photos of first and young offenders, and sealed all other pictures from public inspection. Pennsylvania’s Director of Public Safety went so far as to openly disagree with New York’s system of exhibiting their gallery and sharing photos with the press.

By the early 1900s, New York did restrict access to its 18,000 photos, but by then the premise was emulated worldwide. To organize these massive collections, many police departments mounted pictures on small cards and stored them in file drawers. While housing them was relatively easy, categorizing the photos was more challenging. The most common practice was to file each criminal by his or her area of specialty: pickpocket, bank thief, confidence scams, etc. This did little, however, to narrow suspects on the basis of physical attributes, nor did organizing by type of crime help connect the dots of geography or known associates. Yet, what rogues’ galleries lacked in specificity, they made up for in economy of reproduction and ease of distribution. There is perhaps no better example of this than “Big Bertha, the Confidence Queen.”

Bertha Hyman had little chance of running the straight and narrow path. She was raised by a forger father who served prison time in their native Prussia. She arrived in the United States in 1878 and soon became an accomplished swindler in her own right.

In 1880, Bertha scammed a New York City railway conductor out of $1,035. She was acquitted of a similar charge by a Staten Island jury, but was re-arrested while leaving the courthouse for stealing nearly $1,500 from two other men. Remarkably, even while in jail on that charge, she was able to convince one of the warden’s friends to give her $900.

Bertha was in and out of prison for more than a decade before moving to Los Angeles. But with California’s police on her tail for numerous charges of theft by deception, Bertha headed to New Orleans. Unfortunately for the confidence queen, by now her photo was on display in rogues’ galleries from San Francisco to New York - not to mention that it had been circulated to nearly every railroad employee in the nation. While passing through San Antonio, Bertha was recognized, detained and arrested.

Unlike many criminals who tried to alter their facial appearance in early mugshots, Bertha appeared quite relaxed and amused in hers, making her incredibly easy to identify. Even for the cunning few who crossed their eyes, puffed out their cheeks, or shifted their lower jaws, however, the camera usually got the better of them.

Thomas Byrnes, Inspector of Police and Chief of Detectives for New York City, is regarded as the father of the rogues’ gallery. He never worried about criminals manipulating their photos beyond reliability. “There is not a portrait here but has some marked characteristic by which you can identify the man who sat for it,” he said. Byrnes reasoned that men could shave their head, grow a beard, dye their hair, even gain or lose weight - but none of that could hide a misshapen ear, crooked nose, or milky eye. These are the unique characteristics the rogues’ gallery recorded.

NYPD Chief Thomas Byrnes

Although perhaps primitive and inefficient by today’s standards, rogues’ galleries operated in the same capacity as modern mugshots. The biggest difference is, of course, access. Today’s “booking shots” can be found on federal, state and local web sites. They are in color and, combined with written physical description and arrest details, offer a realistic notion of what and who these men and women are. Most critically, today’s databases can be searched by any criterion necessary.

While efforts to identify lawbreakers may have started as a cruel system of branding and humiliation, it is today a high-tech, invaluable tool. The small index cards that once filled hundreds of drawers have been replaced by digitized images processed not just by human eyes, but also by computer software. Complex algorithms translate jaws, cheeks and noses into formulas decipherable by facial recognition systems at points as varied as border patrol checkpoints and casinos.

The rogues’ galleries of yesteryear have worldwide impact today - something the letter “A” could never achieve, no matter how bright red it is. PnC

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