Mugshots. The 19th Century Invention Still Used Every DayC.A. Asbrey
It was the idea of Robert Evan Roberts, the governor of Bedford Prison in the 1850s, who became concerned that too many habitual criminals were getting away.
The police had previously relied on written descriptions to help capture criminals, but he believed these methods were too unreliable.
Instead he commissioned a photographer to take pictures of offenders, so they could easily be traced if they committed further crimes. These poses were vaired and often immitated portraiture. It was the French policeman, Alphonse Bertillon, who standardised the poses to the full face and profile pictures which are still in use today. Bertillon also pioneered anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement creating an identification system based on physical measurements. This method was later overtaken by the use of fingerprinting. This pioneer of crime detection also created many other forensics techniques, including the use of galvanoplastic compounds to preserve footprints, ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering.
The term 'Mugshot' comes from an old English slang word for face - the Mug. And so the mugshot was born.
Looking at the faces from long-gone prisoners is fascinating, not only to students of clothing and wardrobe of the period, but to the those of us fascinated by social history. The pictures provide clues to social standing, hunger and need, as well as cruelty and the ethnic mix of new immigrants starting to show up amongst the poorest in society.
The crimes themselves are also telling. Ragged children are arrested for petty thefts, gaunt women picked up on prostitution charges, and men are involved in crime less common today such as poaching and sucking beer straight from the barrels. Overall they show the desperation born of grinding poverty and hopelessness.
7 year old Edgar Kilminster was arrested in 1870 for stealing 'sweet meats', which could have been sugary treats. It's more likely they are the 19th century slang of offal which was quite a treat to the almost starving in 1870. Edgar was given a week's hard labour and twelve strokes of the birch. He was only 3'10" and was almost certainly malnourished. A normal 7 year old boy is around 4'2" today.
Today I'm showing you some of the more unusual mugshots which make up 19th century criminal records. At the other end of the scale we have 79 year old William Lord who was sentenced to six months hard labour for stealing wood. He was pardoned by the queen due to ill health.
George Henry Charles Perry, who was arrested for posing as a vicar to con people. The 32-year-old is seen still wearing his fake dog collar
Daniel Tohill (incorrectly labelled as Daniel Lohill), born in 1881 in New Zealand. Charged with theft and sentenced to 4 months hard labor on 2 March 1908 in Napier. Photograph taken on 11 June 1908 by the New Zealand Police; image via the archives of the New Zealand Police Museum. He could give George Bennett a run for his money for the title of most photogenic Victorian Criminal. Tihill's short criminal career coincided with the arrival of three children one after the other, so it appears he was struggling to support his family.
Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums