An Odd Display

A couple of months ago this image caught my eye when I saw it for sale at an online vintage photo fair. The seller titled it “Four mug shots framed in a mat with a prisoner stripe motif.” Obviously, I wasn’t able to examine it in person, but got in touch with the seller and asked what the he knew about the piece. He answered, “not much” and told me the price was $90.

I wasn’t sure if the photos were genuine, but I decided to take a gamble on it. Shipping from New York was a very reasonable $5.

A week or so later the odd little display arrived on my doorstep in a battered and slightly broken Uggs box. The seller had wrapped it with plenty of newspaper, so fortunately it was unharmed.

The photos turned out to be genuine late-19th-century mugshots, or “rogues gallery photos” as the would have then been called. They are in carte-de-visite (CDV) format—about the size of a playing card with a photographic print glued onto the card. Each CDV was glued with mucilage to cheap mat board. Thankfully they came off easily.

The backs of the photos, with marks showing where they had been glued to the mat board.

On the display there was a color copy of the back of each photo, containing a description of the individual in the photo. The white “stripes” are tape on black mat board. The whole thing looks like a kid’s school project, and I doubt I’ll ever figure out why it was made or who made it.

I did some newspaper research into the woman, Emma Armstead. She was arrested in December 1876 for shoplifting a coat from “Wanamaker’s establishment” in Philadelphia. Held on $1000 bail, her hearing was postponed until March 1877 because her counsel was “absent.” She didn’t show up to that hearing and forfeited her bond, so that coat ended up being an expensive one. Emma looked down when her photo was taken, which was something people often did to make it harder to recognize them in the photo, but she also looks very sad.

William Costello (in his wonderful derby) was arrested in a Philadelphia saloon on North Ninth Street on January 26, 1888, after getting into a dispute with a friend named Thomas Murray. The argument gave the bartender the idea that they’d drugged and robbed a man named Siddell. At a court hearing a few days later, they were both charged with robbing two men (neither of whom was named Siddell) of their watches. Each claimed to be innocent and pointed the finger at the other. They were held under large bonds. No information was published as to how either case was settled.

As to John Higgins, the man accused of forgery in 1897, I was unable to find out anything out about him or his arrest.

Joseph Lewis, aka “Hungry Joe”

But the main reason I purchased the piece was the photo of the man identified as “Francis J. Alvany.” He had a number of aliases, but his real name may have been Joseph Lewis, aka “Hungry Joe.” (He was said to have a huge appetite, making a habit of dining six times a day.)

As nineteenth century criminals go, Joe was a rock star. He has an extensive Wikipedia page. I recognized the photo because it, along with his bio, appeared in Inspector Thomas Byrnes’ book, Professional Criminals of America. The most accurate recap of Joe’s life and criminal career can be found in the bio written by author Jerry Kuntz.

Joe left a boatload of lore in his wake. Byrnes claimed he befriended the Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, in order to swindle him. Another story has Joe thrown out of a police station in New York City by the infamous NYPD Captain, “Clubber” Williams, over a personal grudge. The phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute” is said to have originated with Hungry Joe.

I’m thrilled to be the owner of an original CDV mugshot of Joe Lewis. Don’t you love the way he wears his coat high around his neck? I wonder if he’d just finished eating one of his legendary meals when his mugshot was taken.

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