What happens when we look at a portrait and the only thing we know about the person is that they committed a crime?
When we admire someone, we love to look at their portraits to imagine how it felt to be inside their minds. Think of all the powerful portraits of famous writers and artists who lived in a time when people didn’t take pictures of everything every five seconds. With the few portraits of them we have available, we have to imagine their temperament, gestures, and internal lives. But what about equally fascinating people who aren't that famous? What happens when we look at a portrait and the only thing we know about the person is that they committed a crime? Do faces reveal who we are? Or do they hide our true selves like masks?
There's a positive and a negative side to our love of portraits. In 1857, New York’s police force hired Thomas Byrnes to take pictures of several dangerous criminals. Then, he decided to take pictures of suspects instead of known criminals. He used those images to identify “potential lawbreakers” before any crime was committed. This is an example of the dangerous sides of portraits, how they’re used and for what purpose. Who looks like a criminal? And who gets to decide what criminals are supposed to look like? Does “evil” have a face? Does that face smile?
Bert Martin has the most intriguing mugshot and story behind it. He was a cowboy who was arrested for stealing horses. Months after his arrest, his cellmate in a Nebraska prison revealed that Bert was actually a woman named Lena. After that, his sentence of two years was reduced, when the Governor of Nebraska called him “a sexual monstrosity, unfit for association with men or women even in a penal institution.” Can we imagine his thoughts and inner life when we look at his mug shot? Can we understand why he smiled?
Among the mugshots, there are a few characters that showed their feelings more clearly. Like Minnie Bradley, who was arrested on December 13, 1902 for larceny and refused to look at the camera when take mug shot was taken. Or Goldie Williams, who crossed her arms as a form of protest after she was arrested for vagrancy on January 29, 1898. It’s not hard to imagine why these women had such contempt for the police, and why it would be even fun or amusing for them to show it in such a straight-forward way. But we’re still left wondering who they really were and what they truly felt.
Around the same time when Minnie and Goldie decided to show their contempt for the police, Frank Dinsmore, a double murderer, was getting this intriguing mugshot taken in Odessa, Nebraska. Dinsmore killed his wife Lillian in the kitchen and Fred Laue, the owner of the house, in his bedroom. Lillian’s brothers and Fred Laue’s wife accused Dinsmore of having hypnotic powers and using them against Lillian and Mrs. Laue. When we look at his mugshot, can you see any “hypnotic powers”? Or do you find the accusations silly and superstitious?
It’s easy to create caricatures of evil instead of considering the context of individual people. The record of their faces has to be enough for us to imagine their thoughts and motivations. Luckily, as if they knew that they would be remembered by that alone, they offered the most compelling expressions and small rebellions when their pictures were taken.
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