The following written extracts are from The Photographic News London 1866. While some prisons and jurisdictions in England had begun judicial and prison photography by 1859, the practice was not universal until 1872.
John Robinson, booking photograph and record
Millbank Prison 1861
Courtesy Bedford Gaol Database
In 1873 Thomas J. Nevin began his commission as the “prison limner” in Tasmania.
“… the prison limner is not often favoured with willing sitters …”
Some of Nevin’s sitters knew of the tricks to frustrate a successful result: giving the photographer an alias; sudden movements at the moment of exposure; putting on mock airs; contorting facial features; and refusing altogether to co-operate. It is a testimony to Nevin’s perseverance and amiability that the majority of his extant mugshots depict men who appear placated rather than intimidated.
The “booking photograph” taken of the offender on arrest was an established practice by 1866, according to this statement from The Photographic News(p.525):
A strange and sad gallery of portraits, not quite denuded of individuality by close-cropped hair and prison grey garb ; the portraits being often secured in the guise in which the culprit comes into the hands of justice…
Examples of booking shots by Nevin are held at the National Library of Australia, Archives Office of Tasmania, and Mitchell Library NSW Collections. Many prisoners who were photographed in Tasmania habitually wore prisoner clothing, whether free in servitude to an employer or completely incarcerated, so in some sense many more of his mugshots – and most do depict men in prison uniform – were also “booking photographs” taken on arrest. For other occasions, such as discharge on a ticket-of-leave or release to freedom, the (ex)prisoner was required to report to the Municipal Police Office where Nevin and his assistant Louis Marks dressed him up once again in prisoner clothing as an updated record for future reference.
Photograph of convict Thomas Harrison by T.J. Nevin, 19 January 1874
Ref: 30-3252c AOT & QVMAG Collections
|From State Library and Archives Office of Tasmania convict photographs by Thomas J. Nevin|
|From Thomas J. Nevin’s prisoner photographs at the NLA|
Two photographs of convict Francis Shearan, taken by Thomas Nevin.
Left: the “booking shot” 1877
Right: sentenced eight years for murder 15 May 1878.
Mitchell Library SLNSW PXB 274
|From Nevin’s Eleven Convict Cartes Mitchell Library NSW|
The credit which has been denied to photography on the score of art capacity must be conceded to its literal fidelity in rendering facts. That it is not imaginative, that it cannot modify or omit details from its presentments, becomes, in many cases, its cardinal virtue. If it nothing extenuate, it sets down naught in malice, and when it enters the witness-box, its evidence leaves little room for doubt. Hence it has taken an important place as an auxiliary to the administration of justice, both in civil and criminal cases. In multiplying indisputable fac-similes of important documents, in indicating pictorially the relative positions of disputed territory, its use is obvious. But it is in its aid to the discovery of identity in persons charged with crime that its legal use is most important. Nearly twelve years ago, Mr. J. A. Gardiner, Governor of Bristol Gaol, addressed a letter to the Governors of Her Majesty’s gaols generally, pointing out the importance of preserving a photographic record of the prisoners under their charge—a veritable rogue’s gallery! which might be a rare study to the disciples of Lavater. It was not with a view to the study and classification of physiognomical types that Mr. Gardiner proposed to secure sun drawings of bis enforced guests, but solely with a view to their identification when they visited gaol a second time. ” It is well known to all,” he said, ” who have been concerned in criminal administration, that the most cunning, the most skilled, and the most daring offenders, are migratory in their habits ; that they do not locate themselves in any particular town or district. but extend their ravages to wherever there is the most open field for crime ;” the best planned robberies, he adds, being rarely conducted by the resident thieves in any district. This migratory, or Bohemian tendency, diminished the risk of identification in the exact ratio in which it brought the criminals within fresh judicial districts and under fresh official inspection, and often permitted expert professional thieves, hardened criminals, to pass off lightly as first offenders, only just stepping out of the path of rectitude. Written descriptions were rarely found sufficiently precise for identification, and hence Mr. Gardiner was induced to try photography, which he found most efficient for the purpose, and strongly recommended for systematic adoption to bis brother governors. The success which attended the partial adoption of this plan induced a Select Committee of (The House of Lords, on whose Report the Prison Act of 1866 was framed, to recommend its universal adoption in Her Majesty’s prisons. For some unexplained reason, the Secretary of State did not see fit to adopt the recommendation, and photography is only employed where the governors of gaols themselves see its importance.
Where the system is adopted, the portrait of every criminal is taken as soon as he arrives at the gaol, and prints from this negative are circulated, attached to a printed form, in which a description is given, including details of age, height, complexion, hair, eyes, nose, whiskers, and specific marks, and also the account which the prisoner gives of his place of birth, last residence, education, trade, religion, &c. The circular, containing the portrait and these particulars, is forwarded by the governor to the governor of a neighbouring gaol, stating that ” the prisoner above described is in custody for trial;” and a request is added that, if he is recognized as having been in custody before, particulars may be forwarded, and also that the circular may be forwarded to the next gaol marked in the route annexed. Thus the document passes through a prescribed route, receiving, as it travels, the testimony of various governors, intimating that the prisoner is ” not known,” or that he was convicted at any former period, generally under some other name than that now assumed, and is finally returned to the gaol from whence it was issued, furnishing at times curious facts in the statistics of crime, and in the biography of gaol-birds.
As may readily be conceived, the prison limner is not often favoured with willing sitters, and strange are the devices by which the cunning of the criminal is manifested in evading this unerring mode of personal identification, which he regards as taking a mean advantage of him. Some treat the attempt with open defiance, resolutely refusing to sit still during the operation ; others, with a mock air of submission, sit perfectly quiet during the preliminary arrangements and focussing operation, but move sufficiently at the vital moment of exposure; others, who pretend to have no objection to be portrayed, contrive to produce such an amount of facial contortion, by squinting, twisting of the mouth, &c, as will effectually destroy identity in the portrait. In some cases this cunning is met with resolute perseverance, and in others with stratagem, so that in all cases a sufficiently characteristic likeness is obtained. One governor informs us that he generally contrives that the operation shall take place just before dinner, and refractory sitters are informed that no dinner will be dispensed until the portrait has been obtained, a practical argument, the force of which is generally recognised. In another gaol, after the sitter has, by movement or contortion, baffled the portraitist, he, or still more commonly she, is handed to a seat in a well-lighted place, to rest awhile and watch the operation repeated with the next criminal. The sitter, just rejoicing in the cunning which has defeated the attempt of the photographer, generally sits perfectly still, watching with eager interest the operation for which another is sitting. In the meantime, a concealed camera, within range of which the first victim had been placed, is doing its work, and a natural and characteristic likeness is obtained of the unconscious criminal, who had apparently retired master of the situation.
A strange and sad gallery of portraits, not quite denuded of individuality by close-cropped hair and prison grey garb ; the portraits being often secured in the guise in which the culprit comes into the hands of justice.
A series forwarded to the writer, by the excellent governor of Carlisle Gaol, himself an accomplished photographer, might furnish a mournful theme for the moralist. Not all brutalized, or besotted, or sinister ; not all with the forehead villanous low, the square jaw, the coarse mouth, or the eye of wild beast; but in more cases a weak and weary, or a craven and humbled look. Some of the faces remind us painfully of another series of portraits, taken by Dr. Hugh Diamond, of insane persons, and suggest to us the connection between diseased morals and diseased minds, between crime and insanity. Physiognomy, to the careful observer, may often, doubtless, indicate tendencies of character, and suggest phases of mental history. None of the portraits before us look intellectual, or suggest culture ; they are mostly of a low type; but there is nothing to suggest the dogged, resisting, vindictive beings, with overhanging felon-brow and sunken cruel eyes, which sensation writers at times attribute to the criminal classes. They are rather examples of God’s image degraded and enfeebled by neglect; plants which resemble weeds, because left without culture. The only portrait marked as that of a murderer is that of a weak but not imbecile-looking old man, the mildest in expression amongst a score of criminals.
Photography, as the auxiliary of the detective in tracking the criminal flying from justice, renders most important service.* The photograph of Muller, the murderer of Mr. Briggs, became practically his death warrant. It supplied the jeweller, who bought the plundered chain, with a means of identifying the foreign-looking person who sold it, and rendered the officer of justice, who had never seen him, familiar with his features, so that he detected him amongst the crowd of passengers on the deck of the ” Victoria ” when on a fine summer day, it entered the bay of New York, to give, in a few hours, the murderer liberty in a new world. The “card” of the absconding fraudulent debtor or embezzling clerk is placed in the hands of Inspector Bucket, and he starts off without hesitation to Australia or America to apprehend a man he has never seen. The universality of photographic portraiture has been singularly useful in this respect. There are few men, open in any degree to the sympathies of their kind, who have not at some time sat for a photograph, little dreaming of the weapon it placed in the hands of their pursuers should they at any time step into the paths of crime.
The powers of this silent witness have, however, led to singular exaggeration, and the lovers of the marvellous have been treated from time to time with records of the detection of murderers by the image remaining on the dead *eye of the victim, which, duly magnified and photographed, has borne swift witness against the criminal, it is needless to say that this is an absurd impossibility. The retina of the eye retains the impression of an object so long as that object is before it, as does a mirror, and no longer. It has never been alleged, indeed, that the dead eye retained impressions, except in the case of murdered persons; the common belief in the Nemesis which attends the man-slayer having apparently generated this superstition in the domain of science.
[End of extract]
THE BEDFORD GAOL DATABASE
At least three prisons in England – Millbank, Pentonville and Leicester – had begun the systematic photographing of prisoners by the early 1860s. The Bedford Gaol database has 99 photographs online which date from 1859 to 1877, and include several women, some photographed in prison clothing, others in street clothes. For example, Catherine May was photographed in prison clothing between her trial in April and her death in September 1863, while Mary Luddock aka Woods was booked and photographed on arrest in civilian clothes, and the same shot was pasted to her record:
Catherine May, 1863: mugshot and record
Courtesy of The Bedford Gaol Database
Mary Luddock aka Woods, booking photo in street clothes
The same photograph was pasted to her criminal record sheet,
Photo courtesy Bedford Gaol Database
Similar images were taken of the men. In nearly every one of these 99 photographs dating from 1859 to 1877, the prisoner is photographed three-quarter length, to just below the knee, with eyes towards the camera, and in many instances with the back of the hands visibly displayed on their laps. The techniques used by the prison photographer were basic. None of the mugshots betray a commercial background of the photographer; none are framed as vignettes as were Thomas J. Nevin’s mugshots dating from 1872, nor posed in the tradition of studio carte-de-visite portraiture.
This prisoner, William Jones, was sentenced and photographed at Millbank in 1861, transported on the Norwood in 1862 to Western Australia, and released with a Certificate of Freedom issued at Perth, WA, in 1868.
William Jones, mugshot taken at Millbank 1861.
Courtesy Bedford Gaol Database.
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