OPP MUSEUM PHOTO Charles Murray. Arrested Jan. 1, 1907. Thin, sallow complexion, had sailor woman tattooed on right arm.
Nov 28, 2011
The eyes stare hauntingly across time.
Outfitted in bowlers, ties and jackets, newly minted criminals gaze unflinchingly at photographers hired by Ontario police to record freshly arrested crooks in the Niagara area in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The 100 striking photographs in “Arresting Images” have been selected from 474 mug shots found at the OPP’s Niagara regional headquarters during some housecleaning in the 1960s.
Culled from hundreds of well-preserved studio cards, the photographs are on display at the Helen McClung Gallery at the Archives of Ontario building at York University until Dec. 9.
They aren’t mug shots as we’ve come to know them today. These aren’t the dishevelled Lindsay Lohans, Paris Hiltons or Nick Noltes of their day, dragged into sterile police rooms to face cops clicking a camera.
They’re mostly petty criminals, arrested for pickpocketing or fraud, hauled off to private photo studios, which at the turn of the last century were still a curiosity.
Some are shot against simple backdrops. Others are against painted backgrounds, sitting in cushioned chairs or posed leaning against a small section of staircase railing.
The exhibition was assembled in 2009 by curator Jeanie Tummon for the Ontario Provincial Police Museum to mark the OPP’s 100th anniversary.
“It’s important that the collection survived,” Tummon tells the Star. “It’s an amazing record of Canadian criminal history. These are quite extraordinary moments.
“The photographic quality, in some cases, is stunning.”
Lawlessness along the U.S./Canada border had contributed to the decision by Queen’s Park to form a provincial police force in 1909. Most of the images come from the Niagara area.
They include the two earliest known mug shots in a Canadian public collection.
Next Tuesday, York will host “Busted: The Enduring Allure of the Mug Shot,” a panel discussion about the exhibition.
Stephen Bulger, who owns a downtown art gallery, will moderate the panel, which will include three fine arts professors.
“These photographs are pregnant with a lot of meanings,” Bulger says. “They’re photographs of people in an emotionally charged time.”
But are they art?
“They certainly weren’t intended as art, but if the question is whether they have as much significance as art, I would say yes,” says Bulger, who suggests looking at the images turns viewers into “voyeurs.”
“It’s a sort of guilty pleasure, looking at someone in a very intensely private moment of their lives. Unless you’re a hardened criminal who’s been arrested 50 times, I think being thrown in front of a camera is a pretty disorienting experience.”
Yet Bulger concedes most of the suspects show no emotion as they face the camera.
“There’s a veneer of calm . . . they’re trying to act like cool cucumbers, but they look very vulnerable,” he says. “Even the really tough criminals, it looks like you could crack them pretty easily. I think it’s just a stance people take in front of the camera.”
Bulger says he finds it interesting then and now how the legal system works.
“You’re apparently innocent until proven guilty. Being arrested isn’t proof that you’re guilty of anything,” he explains. “But what I’ve always found remarkable, especially in contemporary media culture, is that a mug shot, especially one taken of a celebrity, will hit the airwaves within hours of an arrest being made. That becomes a portrait seared into people’s memories.
“I think that’s indicting people before they have a chance to defend themselves. Mug shots have been used to completely trounce people’s careers and reputations.”
That said, he suggests the images give him “a chance to speculate, to make assumptions about these people’s lives.
“It’s gazing at people to see what I can detect from a mere portrait of someone. I’m looking for clues to figure out why this person is a criminal. How did I end up the way I did and how did they end up the way they did?”
The exhibition reproduces the photographs on the front of the studio cards and handwritten information by arresting officers on the back.
Some have interesting nicknames, like pickpocket George Mason, alias Dutch Fred, who was nabbed on May 10, 1898.
Freckle-faced Joseph Collins, alias Sly Joe, was just a 22-year-old bellboy when he was arrested as a pickpocket in 1895. Owen Dunn, known to police as Shorty, was a 4-foot, 5-inch bellboy who was arrested for theft at the hotel where he worked.
Peter Lake, alias Lane, alias Grand Central Pete, was a 61-year-old con man and bunco artist. Elegantly dressed, he could pass for a banker, which was likely part of his con.
Of the 474 mug shots in the overall collection, just 18 are of women. Tummon says that’s not only a reflection that few women were arrested for crimes, but that police may not have photographed first-time female offenders.
Art history professor Sarah Parsons said she’s struck by the sameness of their stares.
“There’s a routine quality about them, an affectless, emotionless presentation. They look kind of gussied up for the occasion, like they’re flattered to have their picture taken.
“This was at a time when photography was certainly hugely popular, but still fairly expensive.
“At the same time it would surely be frightening to be captured by the authorities,” Parsons says. “Even if they were frightened at the moment, they seem to fall into the routine of posing for the camera, that the event of having one’s picture taken summons a certain behaviour that might be out of keeping with being arrested.”
And yet the fact that most of the mug shots show suspects wearing hats, jackets and ties casts criminals in a different light than typical rounders of the day.
“This is a rogues gallery?” Parsons wonders. “If these were the most miserable looking people in Ontario society at the moment, then we’re doing pretty well.
“They were an elegant looking crew.”
Don McGill, arrested June 13, 1900 for burglary and larceny. Sentenced Oct. 16, 1900 to four months at Niagara County Jail.
Edward Baker, 19. Arrested for burglary, June 22, 1900. Stout, large blue eyes.
Elliss McDonald, 38, boarding house operator. Arrested Aug. 15, 1906 for shoplifting and third-degree larceny.
F.E. Larkin, arrested Aug. 15, 1903 for third-degree burglary after he broke into "the Falls hotel."
Joseph Collins, alias Sly Joe, 22 years old, pickpocket. Trade: Bellboy. Arrested May 7, 1895, by Officer Haley.
Lillie Williams, alias Harrington, 23 years old. Arrested for suspicion of an unidentified crime, Aug. 11, 1901.
Peter Lake, alias Lane, alias Grand Central Pete, 61 years old. Con and bunco artist. Arrested June 7, 1900.
William Jackson, sentenced April 14, 1903. American citizen served just over four years at Kingston Penitentiary for house-breaking and theft.
William Rae, alias Frank Hall, 21 years old. Escaped and at large. Arrested for vagrancy by Officer Mains, June 17, 1900.