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:

classic mugshots herbert cockran
historic mugshots goldie williams
historic mugshots george ray
historic mugshots james whitewater
Nailed In Nebraska: The Mugshot’s Early Days
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Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.
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