The advent of photography revolutionized the criminal investigation process, giving police officers the ability to capture vital details of criminals faster than ever before. The mugshot as we know it today came into being in the 1860s, as police began to photograph individuals placed under arrest. As with most American “inventions,” we borrowed from the British in creating the phrase: at this time, the word “mug” was British slang for one’s face.
The historical mugshots featured below were taken in the late 1800s in the new state of Nebraska, which entered the Union in 1867. At this time, the Nebraskan city of Omaha was a hotbed for crimes of all sorts–be it gambling, prostitution or grafting. Around 1898, the city saw an uptick in formal crime, just as the Trans-Mississippi Exposition was held there. Over two million people visited the exhibition, which featured Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Everleigh House, run by brothel owners Ada and Minna Everleigh.
These photos offer a humanistic perspective on crime, as well as an opportunity to take note of how attitudes toward certain crimes–and their appropriate punishment–have changed over the year:
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November, 1899. An unidentified member of the Omaha police force holds Herbert Cockran in a headlock during his mug shot. Cockran was arrested on burglary charges. Source: Nebraska History
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Goldie Williams, arrested on January 29, 1898. The five foot tall, 110 pound woman was defiant upon her arrest for vagrancy. Williams reported her hometown as Chicago and her occupation as a prostitute. Source: Nebraska History
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George Ray’s 1890s mugshot is rare in that the prisoner is smiling. Not only did most arrestees have little to smile about, the length of time it took for the exposure to develop made it even less likely that a recently incarcerated person would hold a grin. Source: Nebraska History
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In 1872, James Whitewater killed two men. While in prison (until 1889) he embraced Christianity. That same year, the Nebraska legislature passed an act allowing the governor to pardon two inmates who had "been in jail more than 10 years, or whose conduct while incarcerated merited such mercy." When released, Whitewater walked through the prison gates and "rolled in the grass from joy." Source: Nebraska History
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Three burglars blew up a safe located in a bank vault in Sheridan, Missouri on the night of February 15, 1898. They got away with about $2,400 – but the bank's insurance company hired the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency and sent Assistant Superintendent F.H. Tollotson to hunt down the burglars. He tracked one of the wanted men down through Missouri to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and eventually to a room at the Omaha Sheridan Hotel. With the aid of the Omaha police, Tollotson apprehended a gun-wielding 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 that 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 court where he was measured, photographed, and locked up while he awaited his transfer to Missouri. Source: Nebraska History
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May 12, 1897. James Collins, a 23-year-old tailor, is shown in his mugshot with a bandaged head - after being arrested for burglary, escaping, and promptly being rearrested. Source: Nebraska History
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March, 1885. Albert Johnson arrives at the Nebraska State Prison sporting an impressive handlebar mustache. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for grand larceny. Johnson’s hair and luxurious mustache were shaved off by officials due to a lice scare. Source: Nebraska History
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May, 1903. Bertha Liebbeke was reported to be one of the Midwest's most notorious pickpockets. She would search out a well-dressed man--ideally with a diamond-studded lapel pin--stumble into the man, and pretend to faint and fall into his arms. While the hapless man attempted to help her, Bertha would relieve the gentleman of his valuables or wallet. This trick earned her the nickname "Fainting Bertha." Source: Nebraska History
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December 13, 1902. Minnie Bradley refused to look at the camera in her Omaha Police Court mug shot. She was arrested for ‘larceny from a person’ and her booking record noted that she wore a wig. Source: Nebraska History
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J.P. Robinson, 1901. “Robinson attempted to pay for a glass of beer in a lower Douglas Street saloon in Omaha with a Mexican dollar, on Nov. 21, 1901. The beer cost only a nickel and Robinson received 95 cents of American money in change. At the time, the foreign dollar looked very similar to the American currency, but was only worth about 45 cents. This clever money scam left Robinson 50 cents and a glass of lager ahead of the game, until he was arrested." Source: Nebraska History
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Looks can be deceiving. Mrs. H.C. Adams looked every bit the typical Victorian lady when taken into police custody, but her elegant hairstyle and proper, wire-rimmed glasses hid a darker reality. Adams was arrested in Omaha on April 12, 1900 for blackmail. She listed her residence as Palisade, Nebraska, and her occupation as a prostitute. Source: Nebraska History
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“A double murder rocked the tiny town of Odessa, Buffalo County on the night of December 4, 1899. Lillian Dinsmore was found dead in the kitchen of the house in which she and her charismatic husband Frank L. Dinsmore boarded. Fred Laue, the boarding house owner was shot in his bedroom. The Dinsmores had been married only a year.
According to Fred Laue's wife, Mr. Dinsmore became obsessed with her and seduced her. Unhappy in his marriage, Dinsmore supposedly plotted to kill his young wife and murder Laue. After she was murdered, Lillian Dinsmore's brothers accused Dinsmore of using hypnotic powers on their vulnerable sister. After hearing the accusation, Mrs. Laue also claimed to be a victim of Dinsmore's hypnotic influence.
The Dinsmore case became a newspaper sensation. He vehemently denied all the charges even after the guilty verdict was read and he was sentenced to death by hanging. Dinsmore's lawyers appealed the sentence and Governor Dietrich stepped in to commute his sentence to life in prison.” –Nebraska State Historical Society Source: Nebraska History
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Typically there would be three mug shots taken of each male prisoner; one before the head was shaved, and a both full-faced and profile image after their hair was removed. Females had only a full-face and profile image and did not have their hair cut. Source: Nebraska History
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June 3, 1898. At 5 feet 6 inches and a meager 104 pounds, Jim Ling had a listed occupation of “Thief.” Ling was arrested for running an opium joint. Source: Nebraska History
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Thomas Whitney (known to his clients as the Professor) extensively advertised his clairvoyance and palm reading services in Omaha newspapers. Whitney claimed he had no equal in giving advice on love, law, deeds, wills, mining, divorce, changes, investments, patents, and all other business of a financial nature. Readings cost $1 for gentlemen and only 50 cents for ladies. One of his customers proved to be unsatisfied with the readings and the Professor was arrested for obtaining money under false pretenses in December 1915.
He was later released after agreeing to repay the money he had taken from his victims. Source: Nebraska History