Images of Incarceration

History exists in a multiplicity of perhaps “unofficial” ways. Howard Zinn’s excellent A People’s History of the United States is a book I never get tired of recommending for its immediacy and honesty. We rarely think about mug shots as an aspect of societal history (I will not embarrass anyone by asking for a show of hands, to see how many of us have participated in this “research”) but like many things we take for granted, how it started, and how its changed (or not) is a rich source, a social archive. We take DNA testing for granted, in criminal investigations now, and one need only watch any of the avalanche of CSI shows to see a “hubris of science.” It’s amazing to consider any crimes go unsolved, hmm, if I may be sarcastic, with CSI to the rescue…

Photography is (arguably) a century and a half old, and how its has changed the world is still an ongoing endeavour. Before I go any further, here’s the statement for the exhibition that spurred these thoughts, Arresting Images: Mug Shots from the OPP Museum, which is at the Welland Museum here in Niagara:

Arresting Images features 100 historic mug shots from The OPP Museum’s permanent collection, dating from 1886 to 1908. The exhibition provides a first and rare opportunity for the public to view these historical photographic portraits since they were originally collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection was assembled by the Niagara Falls “Ontario Police” – precursors of today’s Ontario Provincial Police.

Arresting Images highlights historical themes and social circumstances of the period addressing the subjects of crime and law enforcement as well as the emerging use of photographic portraits as a police identification tool.

Represented in the collection are pickpockets, confidence men, escaped fugitives, shoplifters, horse thieves, burglars, safe blowers and others. These images are compelling, fascinating and thought-provoking”. There are “100 historic mug shots from The OPP Museum’s permanent collection, dating from 1886 to 1908” that form this exhibition.

There’s a very enjoyable aspect to this show, a bit of black humour: and because the practice of “mug shots” was still in its infancy, there’s more character and individuality in these “portraits” – even being able to use that term – than we’d see now. Don McGill looks ready to cuff you if you get too close (Burglary and Larceny, around 1900) and Charles Murray (1907) with affected – but exact – descriptors of “thin face” and “sallow” complexion, sits in a shirt that’s torn and blows the camera apart with a clear, steady gaze. “[B]oth he and the times were tough” declares the accompanying text.

As we have a debate about which female icon shall grace Canadian currency, that we choose, as opposed to being imposed on us by the Empire, ahem, its good to learn about Rebecca Shanley, alias Carne. Her crime is listed as “elopement”: but sources of the period (New York Times, 1888) indicate she, in fact, “eloped” with another man, taking the daughter from the discarded husband, Shanley, with her. This could, perhaps, be considered a missing persons case: or may I refer you to how it would be a good half century before women could be considered “persons”, and not “property”?

The shots are presented with brief bits of information, that I’ve sampled / alluded to here: but this was an emerging practice, so not all the information is codified, as in a standard form, and sometimes the charges seem arbitrary and odd, even if we try to forget that this is another era, a different world (that might sound excessive, but picture a world where taking a photo is a rarity, not something so ubiquitous we forget its importance).

One William Rae, alias Frank Hall has his “trade” listed as “thief”, while Peter Lake alias Lane alias Grand Central Pete is guilty of Con & Bunco, whatever that may promise to be (and it is a great designation. I fear I’ll be disappointed when its revealed to be banal…). Lake also looks a bit aggrieved at the indignity of this whole process.

Its also good to consider a few later ideas about crime and punishment as you look at Arresting Images. Michel Foucault, whose research often focused on the notion and construction of “criminal” in the West, especially in works like The Punitive Society or Penal Theories and Institutions, offers two interesting thoughts to bring to the museum. One is that “visibility is a trap”: the other is that “The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.” The latter comment is from his writings in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

The exhibition runs until May 21st at the Welland Historical Museum: it offers a glimpse at a history long gone, but still relevant today.