Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Marking Criminals - Photographing Felons

The 1830s and '40s saw the rapid development of a range of photographic processes.  In France, in 1838, Louis Daguerre took the first known picture containing a person, a man having his shoes polished on the Boulevard du Temple.  At about the same time, Robert Cornelius, took a self-portrait which has written on the back, "The first light picture ever taken."  In England, William Henry Fox Talbot was working on a process which became the calotype and laid the basis for most of the processes which were developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By the 1850s and '60s, photography had developed rapidly and become widespread.  Pictures were taken during the Crimean War although, admittedly, they showed no action, and the American Civil war was thoroughly documented.  Families and individuals were increasingly having their pictures taken and while one might have to sit still for an extended period of time, there was usually a head-brace to restrain the subject from motion and the whole process took far less time and was far less expensive than the alternative; a painting.

As photography became more popular, its social uses became equally evident.  Thus it was that from the mid-1850s onward the notion that it might be an effective way of identifying criminals began to come into increasing focus. Various ways of identifying criminals have been practiced throughout history.  Dr. Anil Aggrawal, professor of Forensic Medicine at the Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, has noted that

Identification of persons especially criminals has always been a problem with the police. In ancient Egypt, detailed descriptions of criminals were maintained by the police. In many societies, the problem of identifying wrongdoers was solved by branding and mutilating them. This made the work of the police that much easier. With this system, if a person was apprehended picking a pocket, the police would have no problem knowing whether he was the first offender or not. If he was already branded, it would be clear that he had already committed an offence, and he would receive a much more severe sentence.

Although not widely practiced, branding was a form of indentifying certain criminals in Great Britain and its colonies even into the second half of the nineteenth century. J. I. Ikin, at the time a Lecturer in Anatomy and Physiology in the School of Medicine at Leeds, writing in the British Medical Journal (10 January 1857) tells us that the branding of deserters with the letter "D" was still practiced although the "branding" was done, not with a hot iron, as had once been the practice, but "with three or four needles tied together, and the letter D is pricked out in the skin under the left arm; a little gunpowder rubbed in, which does better than caustic; in fact, it is the same as tattooing."

The purpose, of course, was to provide a means of identification and Ikin goes on to discuss ways in which deserters would try to hide the D on attempting to rejoin the forces. All of the various methods of identification were gradually replaced with photographs and even after the advent of finger-printing as a tool for identification, photographs remained of great importance.

For much of the nineteenth century, identification of criminals was largely dependent upon detectives being able to recognize criminals with whom they had been in contact.  There were even paid officers whose primary task appears to have been the recognition of criminals.  Unfortunately, as John Dawson pointed out "as matters at present stand, the detectives ... are better known to the criminals than the criminals are to the detectives."  Thus it was that photographs seemed such a useful tool, especially when combined with a detailed description. Initially the photographs that were used by the police and by the gaol administrators were taken by amateurs or photographic studios more experienced in finding a "good" pose.  The police or prison puctires were commonly face on and were posed in a variety of different ways.  Even so, it is quite remarkable that in the mid-1850s, less than two decades after Daguerre's important picture, Richard Monckton Milnes in evidence before the House of Commons' Transportation Committee,could state that

Mr. Gardner, the ingenious and excellent governor of the Bristol gaol, has possessed himself of a photographic apparatus, with which he takes the likeness of every one of his prisoners who he has reason to believe is a person really embarked in crime as a calling.  New. he says he can produce copies for 6d. each.  it is believed by the police that, with the exception of London, 14 copies would be all that would be required, to send them to the great resorts of criminals, namely, to towns which are likely to be visited by old offenders, who desire to hide themselves, and to go where they are not known.

Gardner himself, in a circular distributed in 1854, discusses the advantages to be gained through photographing offenders.  He describes how he sent a photograph around when he thought one of his prisoners might be a habitual criminal and the image was recognized as that of a man "convicted at Wells; the necessary witness was subpoenaed, his former conviction proved, and he was sentenced to four years' penal servitude."
A 12 Years Old Prisoner in Wandworth Gaol

Photography as a means of identification was not greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm.  There were still those in the criminal justice system, both amongst the police and in the prison system who advocated more drastic forms of marking.  Not surprisingly, with the harsher attitudes implied in the Canarvon Committee (1863), the views of those like the Governor of Huntingdon were at least heard, if not acceded to. Governor Shepherd of that prison advocated marking prisoners in the same way deserters were marked albeit with India Ink rather than gunpowder.  But this may simply have been a reaction to his lack of faith in photography.

In Birmingham, as early as 1858, the police were arranging for photographs of those arrested to be taken in a private studio. The number of photographs rapidly increased and soon there was an archive of photographs, a rogues' gallery. With each photograph was listed comprehensive data including details of the supposed crime. and the sentence eventually handed down. By the 1890s there was much talk of the Bertillon system for criminal identification.  Originally known as "anthropometry," it was later called "Bertillonage" after its creator, Alphonse Bertillon.  Although the method, which was based on a series of formal and extensive measurements never became popular in Great Britain which preferred fingerprinting, Bertillon's insistance on a formal structure carried over into the creation of a standard "mug shot" which involved two views; one full face and one profile, a technique which is still employed world-wide. Nonetheless, "Bertillonage" was well enough known in England by the 1890s, for that greatest of consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes, to express his admiration of the system in "The Naval Treaty."

within a few years, photographs of prisoners were being taken on their entering prison and on their release. And this, along with a detailed physical description was to be the primary means of identification until the beginning of the twentieth century and the gradual introduction of fingerprinting.


Hermes said...

Great post. I don't live far from the Fox Talbot museum at Lacock, but never considered this aspect before.

victorian fiction said...

I love invesigating Victorian crime, it is a fascinating subject.