Long before TV viewers began their morbid fascination with true crime documentaries, the mugshot became an iconic piece of American culture. The simply constructed side-by-side photos of accused criminals can often invoke sympathy, horror, amusement, or an unsettling mixture of all three. Perhaps most importantly, mugshots can be used as the most damning signifier of guilt, as if to say, “Well, if they didn’t do it, then why do they look like such a criminal?”
In a new article on Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford explores the history of the mugshot, dating back to its earliest days in the 1840s when daguerreotype portraits of dangerous criminals were displayed in police stations “so that the patrolmen might familiarize themselves with the features of the rogues.” Over time, technology improved along with police procedure until the format of the modern mugshot—one photo in profile and one from the front, known as the Bertillon System—was introduced to Americans at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Following the history lesson is an interview with Mark Michaelson, an avid collector of mugshots since the 1990s who published some of his collection in the 2006 book Least Wanted: A Century Of American Mugshots. Michaelson takes an interesting approach to mugshots in that, unlike some paparazzi-esque collectors, he’s not interested in famous faces. Rather, he’d like to see what the everyday criminal looked like, the “small timers or the ones who fell through the cracks.” His collection spans decades and includes people from all walks of life, including children arrested for petty crime and numerous women whom Michaelson plans to compile into a new book tentatively titled Broads, Dames, Dolls, And Dishes.
Whether any of these run-of-the-mill criminals are worthy of their very own podcast or Netflix series remains to be seen. But, in some ways, the limited amount of information we’re given makes them that much more fascinating.