From murderers to pickpockets to chicken thieves, the Nebraska State Historical Society‘s collection of more than 26,000 historic mugshots offers a unique and often entertaining insight into late 1890s, turn-of-the-century America.
“I stumbled across a whole block of these mugshots and I was just absolutely fascinated by the images and the faces of these people and I wanted to know the stories behind these faces,” said Karen Keehr, photograph curator for the society. “They were so intriguing.”
Keehr thought others would find them interesting as well so she organized an exhibit of the photos a couple of years ago and still has one of her favorite mugshots, of defiant prostitute Goldie Williams, hanging on her office wall.
“We have this very idealized image of a Victorian woman,” Keerh said. “I think we idealize history…but there was also another side of history. Maybe people weren’t all that different from today.”
Mugshots were originally conceived as a way to predict future criminal behavior by studying the arrested person’s facial features.
“It goes back to the Victorian ideal that criminals had a certain look to them,” said Keehr. “They would study mugshots and look for certain characteristics that would help them predict criminal activity in other people.”
Keehr says the photos also tell us about American history. During times of depression, chicken theft and other petty crimes increased. The mugshots might also offer insight into how black people were treated in the 1890s.
“There are quite a few African Americans in the collection even though there wasn’t a big population of African Americans here in Nebraska in the 1890s,” said Keehr. “There was a higher percentage in the prisons even then.”
Keehr receives numerous requests for copies from the mugshot collection, which is one of the society’s most popular. The mugshots are especially interesting to researchers and genealogists. For people looking for their relatives, the mugshots might provide the only photographic evidence of a long-lost family member.
It’s probably one of the few times Americans are happy to learn their relatives have been locked up.