Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

Arresting Elizabeth Wohlman

AFFIRMED.—The case of the state vs. Elizabeth Wohlman, for grand larceny, was affirmed in the Supreme Court yesterday, and the defendant committed to the County Jail for safe keeping until such time as it is convenient to take her to the Penitentiary. The defendant, together with Catharine Martin and Augusta Goetz, living in Belleville, came to this city on the 8th of November 1861, and visited many stores for the ostensible purpose of purchasing goods. They visited the jewelry stores of Cappel, Crane, Jackard, (sic) and others, and the hat and fur store of Mr. Gray. From each of these stores they stole jewelry, and were detected in the store of Eugene Jaccard, in the act of putting some jewelry in the basket which one of them carried.

Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), April 27, 1864

Her hair is oiled, parted in the middle, and worn close to her head in a tight bun. One hand peeks out from a heavy, striped shawl that’s draped across her shoulders and pinned over a knotted scarf around her neck. From her pierced ears hang beautiful earrings, possibly made of gold. Yet something is off about the photo. The woman’s expression is worried and frightened, even a touch angry, and one of her eyes seems to stare directly at the viewer, while the other gazes disconcertingly off camera.

Elizabeth back photo

Back of Wohlman ambrotype, which reads: Mrs. Wohlman-Shop Lifter, 29-years of age-5 foot 6 inches-Brown hair and-Gray eyes, German-Lucker. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Her name was Elizabeth Wohlman, and it’s no surprise she looks unhappy. Shortly before her likeness was captured, she and several family members were arrested at gunpoint outside of Eugene Jaccard & Co., a luxury goods store near the St. Louis riverfront. After being unceremoniously hauled off to the city jail and searched by police officers on that fateful day in November 1861, Wohlman was charged with shoplifting.

This extraordinarily detailed image exists because the St. Louis Police Department began taking photographs of suspects and criminals for the purpose of identification in October 1857. The portraits were hung in a public place in the police station, and citizens were encouraged to walk through and examine what soon became known as the “rogues’ gallery.” Many other American cities followed St. Louis’s lead and started rogues’ galleries of their own, but few of those photographs still exist today.

St. Louis jail

St. Louis City Jail, located at the southeast corner of Sixth and Chestnut, 1850. Daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

A group of nearly 200 photos from the first 10 years of the St. Louis rogues’ gallery miraculously survived and was donated to the Missouri Historical Society by the police department in 1953. Several of the images, including the ambrotype of Wohlman, are identified with handwritten notes on the reverse side.

I discovered the collection while searching for mid-19th-century photos of “typical” German immigrants living in St. Louis, with the goal of getting a better understanding of what my ancestors, who immigrated to St. Louis during that period, looked like. The rogues’ gallery, which includes the likenesses of immigrants and native-born Americans, fascinated me, so I decided to research all the identified people using genealogical resources.

Elizabeth Wohlman is special for several reasons. She’s one of only three women in the collection and the only woman identified by name. Additionally, few women anywhere were photographed for rogues’ galleries because mid-19th-century Americans found it difficult to accept the idea that women committed crimes. This makes Wohlman’s photo exceptionally rare.

There’s more to know about Wohlman’s life, her crime, and the price she paid for it, along with many others whose photos were taken for the “illustrious collection,” as one St. Louis newspaper described it. Grab a copy of Captured and Exposed to begin exploring their stories on your favorite eBook device, then head to the Missouri History Museum to see their portraits on display once again (September 22, 2018 – March 10, 2019) in the new Atrium exhibit, The St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery.

Featured photo: Sixth-plate ambrotype of Elizabeth Wohlman, November 1861. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

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