10 Striking Vintage Photos of Crime and Law Enforcement

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In this age of controversies over the police and the militarization thereof, controversies over youth culture, and responses to mass shootings, we in America often think that the early 20th century was a relatively peaceful time. We haven’t seen the images of questionable police shootings from the beginning of the 1900s or anything of the kind. In most images we’ve seen from the period people seem relatively constrained and poised, revealing as little about themselves as they can. But not in these cases. Here we see the bizarre, unseemly, and candid side of law enforcement in the early days of photography.  

10. Fashionable Mugshots

You don’t need us to tell you that these days everyone is expected to take at least one selfie of themselves with their phone any time they do something semi-noteworthy. We also consider it one of the bigger humiliations in our lives to have a photo of our arrest (known colloquially as a “mugshot”) taken. Hence most people having the same expression in those photos that they do on their driver’s license. However, back in the 1920s, it was still something of a novelty for a person to have their picture taken, even under potentially unseemly circumstances. Thusly, when the Australian government released a collection of mugshots from that era, it included numerous photos of people playing to the camera despite the somber nature of the photograph.

There were such images as Australians dressed in their Sunday best or making mock poses like they were models about to be featured in a catalogue. There was one person who had allegedly been made by the police to dress like a woman. Presumably these were citizens that were generally law-abiding and not people the police assumed would be dangers to society if they allowed them to vamp for the camera, since that would be more likely to hinder an identification.    

9. Chinese Beauty Bar

In Western nations we’re used to the idea that in Asian countries like China, the punishments for lawbreakers tend to be draconian. For example, during the NFL kneeling controversy there were news reports about how those athletes would have faced three years in prison if they had done the same thing over there. But there’s something inventively cruel about attaching people to improvised crosses, as happened to this convict in this 1900 photograph, especially considering the role the Cross plays in many other nations. The fact that he was also forced to kneel on chains seems almost gleefully excessive.

The nickname “Beauty Bar” was first recorded in 1834. According to the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register, it came from the fact the method was supposedly invented by the wife of a judge. Not the most positive way to bring inclusivity into Chinese politics.  

8. Swimwear Arrest

The fact that beachwear which was cut off too many inches above the knee was illegal on many beaches in America is usually treated as a quirk of history. It’s so alien to us, with our beaches full of people wearing thongs and speedos, that that it might as well have happened in a cartoon. All the surprisingly numerous photos of real, deadly serious law enforcement officials seem kind of amusing.

Then there’s this image from July 1922 taken in Chicago of a woman being forced into custody for the crime of having her thighs visible and it suddenly loses its amusing aspect. It makes vivid what an extreme, wasteful invasion of privacy this was and how easily it could be abused. There was a court case from 1919 where a woman had been arrested for wearing a bathing suit under her skirt, which the policeman had to lift to find. The case was dismissed by the judge, but with stories like that and images of people being harassed or deprived of freedom for ridiculously harmless crimes makes it very hard to believe the alleged good intentions of the officers of the law.

7. Pirate Hanging (…?)

There seems to be some controversy surrounding the exact nature of this image. What’s not disputed is that this was another commonplace way of punishing convicts in early 20th Century China. Some have asserted that the prisoner in the cage was a pirate that had murdered several people. He’s standing on a collection of rocks and wood as a way of slowly strangling him, with a different piece of detritus being removed every day.

However, this sort of death cage was a fairly common practice around 1900 for punishing pirates. According to chinesemartialstudies.com, they weren’t being strangled. They were being left to die of dehydration. It seems a bit more plausible than the alternative: How many days could someone who was practically immobile in a cage, left in the sun, last if no one was inclined to give them water? Whatever the truth of that, deterring pirates was important enough to the Chinese government that literal postcards of these executions were spread around regions suffering the worst effects of piracy. That might seem hopelessly backward for the time, but bear in mind that postcards of lynchings were spread through America at the time and for decades after.

6. Struggling Suffragette

Most portrayals of the Women’s Suffrage movement of the early Twentieth Century don’t really get beyond stiff upper lips and marches. Maybe the fact that there was a female anti-suffrage movement or some other novelty will merit a mention. But the truth was much uglier. Not only was there an extensive print and comics campaign against it that with a tone that varied from “suffragettes are ugly” to “I want suffragettes to be arrested and tortured.” This photo from 1910, taken outside Westminster London, shows the start of a riot that began after a bill to give women voting rights was defeated.

There were a number of women severely beaten in the subsequent struggle, and it would still be 18 years before British women began to receive representation for their taxation. Women were often assaulted not only by the police but by bystanders in the following decades of campaigning. Many continued pursuing the cause in prison, with a number beginning hunger strikes that prompted force feedings. Although there were fewer high profile martyrs for the cause, it was much closer to the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s than we’re used to hearing.  

5. 1938 Shootout

Since camera equipment was much less wieldy at the time and there wasn’t the extensive communications network we enjoy today, there are relatively few images of active crime scenes and shoot outs pre-WWII. This image in Los Angeles for featuring a standoff against squads of police is thus all the more unique. On the sidewalk leading up to the house are two murdered police officers.

As it happened, the suspect was not a hardened criminal making a last stand at the end of a long chase. It was 60-year-old George Farley, who shot the officers as they were only delivering an eviction notice. Also, if you’re of the opinion that American law enforcement went through a period where it was too lenient on criminals, this shootout indicates that’s not new. Despite the prolonged standoff that required him to be wounded five times to be taken down, he was only found guilty of two counts of manslaughter.  

4. The Bertillon System

This may look like someone in a device from an equivalent of the Saw movies made during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But no, it was one of the instruments of anthropometry, the standard method suspect identification beginning in 1882 until it was replaced by vastly more reliable fingerprinting in 1912. It was named for Alphonse Bertillon, a records clerk for Paris’s police who wanted a more standardized system for describing suspects.

Despite his use of seemingly ridiculous contraptions and a system that became outdated, Bertillon was no crank. He was sufficiently forward-thinking that his other great impact on police procedure was to push heavily for extensive use of photography on crime scenes and convicts. Bertillon also seemed perfectly willing to have the system that bore his name be replaced, considering that he is credited with being the first person to solve a crime using fingerprints in Continental Europe.  

3. The Atlanta Police

At first glance, this isn’t the most thrilling of photographs. It’s just eight African-American officers in Atlanta, Georgia lined up for a portrait in 1948. What’s most revealing about this photograph is that three of the officers are sitting at minimalist school desks. That’s because this wasn’t taken down at any police headquarters. This was taken in the basement of a YMCA, because Atlanta’s chief of police Herbert Jenkins insisted that a black officer working at the main headquarters would cause the other officers to attack them on sight.

Atlanta came by its segregated police force as a result of a 1940 police call by Marian Doom’s apartment on West Peachtree Street regarding a noise out in the street. The police that arrived in response to the call happened upon young janitor Earl Sands and, in front of 20 witnesses, began beating him with a blackjack, then dragging him to the squad car with a chain around his neck, ultimately resulting in Sands being fined $34. One of the witnesses happened to be an attorney and filed a suit for the assault, setting in motion a public outcry that would result in a separate police force to handle calls involving black citizens eight years later, especially impressive considering that many black people weren’t able to vote at the time. Several of the officers, the vast majority of which had already survived service in World War II, would be killed in the line of duty.

2. Homicidal Child

In the wake of recent mass shootings in American schools, one common response was for people to claim that it’s some aspect of modern life (particularly video games) that has resulted in this crime that just didn’t happen in the old days. This image from 1915 of confessed murderer Elmer Fanter is a particularly vivid argument against that. At age 16, he with his friends Charles Miller and Otto Mann robbed a local delicatessen in Chicago in February. One August Janzen entered during the crime and, as Fanter said on the stand, “swatted (Fanter) on the coo (head).” So Fanter shot him through the heart.

Despite how his youth and plaintive expression might tug on the viewer’s heartstrings, there was a particular note from his testimony that should be considered. According to First in Violence by Jerry Adler, while giving his testimony, Fanter was giggling enough for the stenographer to make a note of it. Perhaps it was a coping mechanism for dealing with the stress, or maybe it just a nervous habit. But it certainly is the kind of unexpected aspect that makes the crime feel more real.  

1. Heaven’s Eye Crime Photos

The fashion-conscious mugshots from entry 10 aside, no one thinks of photos related to law enforcement as stylish. They’re supposed to be completely functional since they’re going to subjected to forensic analysis instead of academic analysis. Yet a standard practice for photographing the corpses of victims of violent crimes in New York City to 1915 to 1920 (from an archive of roughly 1,300 photos released in 2012) had a certain dramatic flair that looks like it was done for some sort of artistic purpose. Perhaps the camera is supposed to represent the POV of the person’s soul as they ascend to Heaven or something along those lines. It certainly brings to mind such classic moments in film and television as the final shot in Breaking Bad.

The reason for the high angle is to better study the blood splatter and way that the body fell. Cameras at the time tended to need quite a bit of distance from the subject to focus properly, hence the camera being raised so high. So high in fact that in every one of these photos the legs of the tripod are visible. Considering the burden of hauling around and preparing these rigs, it’s little wonder why this technique was eventually abandoned. It is enough to make one wonder what sort of accidental art was prevented in the process.  

Dustin Koski also wrote Not Meant to Know, which is effectively half dark fantasy, half crime novel.      

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