Photography revolutionized crime investigations. Beginning in the mid 1800s, Police photographed the faces of known criminals. Called "mug shots" (after the British slang word "mug" meaning "face") these images replaced drawings and descriptions on wanted posters. Scientists even studied mug shots to see if physical traits could predict criminal behavior.
The Nebraska State Penitentiary used photography beginning in 1867 to record the likeness of the state's most infamous residents. The Omaha police photographed suspects when arrested. Whether the people depicted were guilty or innocent, behind every photograph is a human story. This glimpse back at some of the thousands of photographs in the Nebraska State Penitentiary and Omaha Police Court Collections at the Nebraska State Historical Society and their accompanying tales offer insights into how earlier Nebraskans ran afoul of the law, and how some attitudes about crime and punishment may have changed.
1. Mrs. H. C. Adams - Blackmail
Looks can often be deceiving. Mrs. H.C. Adams looks every bit the typical Victorian lady. Her elegant hairstyle and wire-rimmed glasses hide a dark secret. Mrs. Adams was arrested in Omaha on April 12, 1900 for blackmail. She listed her residence as Palisade, Nebraska, and her occupation as prostitute. The police record describes her as 5 feet, 1 inch tall with a medium build and a sallow complexion.
2. Minnie Bradley - Larceny from a person
Minnie Bradley refuses to look at the camera in her Omaha Police Court mug shot. Minnie, 27, and 5 foot 2 inches tall was arrested in Omaha on December 13, 1902 for larceny from a person. She listed her residence on north 11th Street in Omaha and her occupation as prostitute. The description also noted that Minnie wore a wig.
3. Charles Martin - Safe blowing and burglary
Three burglars blew up a safe in a bank vault in Sheridan, Missouri, on the night of February 15, 1898. They got away with about $2,400. The bank's insurance company hired the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency and sent Assistant Superintendent F.H. Tollotson to hunt down the burglars. Tollotson tracked one of the wanted men through Missouri to Council Bluffs and eventually to a room at the Sheridan Hotel in Omaha. With the aid of the Omaha police, Tollotson apprehended a gun-welding fugitive after a brief struggle. The alleged bank robber gave his name as Charles Martin, but had several letters addressed to Charles Davis. Martin was unknown to Omaha police, but some detectives speculated to newspaper reporters he could be the notorious safe blower and bank robber Sam Welsh. At the time of his arrest, Martin had a gold watch and $565 in cash believed to be his share of the spoils of the Missouri bank robbery. Martin was taken to the police court where he was measured, photographed, and locked up while he awaited his transfer to Missouri.
4. Albert Johnson - Grand larceny
In March 1885, Albert Johnson arrived at the Nebraska State Prison sporting an impressive handlebar mustache. Johnson was sentenced to 1 year and 6 months for grand larceny. Because of prison policy to reduce lice, authorities shaved Johnson's head and facial hair.
Detailed descriptions and mug shots were important to police and prison authorities. Criminals easily changed names and created numerous identities. Typically, three mug shots taken of each prisoner. One before their heads were shaved and a full-faced and profile image after their hair was removed. Women only had a full-face and profile image. Their hair was not cut.
5. Herbert Cockran - Burglary
An unidentified member of the Omaha police force holds Herbert Cockran in a headlock during his mug shot. Cockran was arrested on November 24, 1899, for burglary. A tailor from Fairmont, Nebraska, Cockran had a slightly stooped build with a fair complexion and his eyebrows met at the root of his nose, according to the police description.
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