I’ve pretty much stopped buying vintage mugshots on eBay because there’s almost nothing of interest for sale, but recently two photos popped up that captured my eye. They were CDVs of two young African American males, both of whom had been arrested in 1895 for “housebraking,” according to the backs of the cards. The photos were fabulous and the cards looked to be in pristine condition. I contacted the seller and made an offer for both. It was accepted. After the CDVs arrived, they looked so perfect that I carefully examined them to make sure they weren’t fakes—thankfully they were real. Someone had taken great care of them in the 128 years since they were made.

William King’s police identification photo; collection of the author

The location where the photos were made was not noted on either verso. However the information there indicated that one of the men, a nattily-dressed young fellow named William King, aged 20, was born in Richmond, Virginia. At just under 5’ 6” tall and weighing 128 pounds, King was described as “stout,” which provides a glimpse into how ideas about body size have changed. Arrested on July 24, 1895, King’s trade was described as “Burglar and Pickpocket.”

For obvious reasons very few people smile when their mugshot is taken, so I’m not sure what to make of William King’s confident grin. With his sharp suit, fresh straw boater hat and glossy tie, he looks like a prosperous gent about town who popped into a photographer’s studio to have his portrait made. It even appears that he was in the middle of commenting on something when his picture was taken. Maybe he was confiding to the police photographer that he knew he’d be out of custody soon.

William Wood’s police identification photo; collection of the author

The other young man, William Wood, was only 15 when he sat in front of the police camera. He was 5’ 5” tall and his trade was listed as “Burglar.” His birthplace and weight were not noted. His arrest date was “Aug 22/95.” His clothes look clean but not fancy and a bit too large for him. Unlike William King, the look on his face is more typical of someone being photographed at the rogue’s gallery. I’d describe it as one of worried concern.

Given the Richmond birthplace of William King, I began searching newspapers for articles about the arrests in Virginia and neighboring areas. I found a record in the Richmond Times-Dispatch of a “Sheriff C.E. Flannery of Lee” who “brought William King to serve two years for housebreaking” in February 1895. But if he did serve this time, that William King can’t be the man in a photo taken in July.

It was in the District of Columbia newspapers that I finally hit pay dirt. The Washington Times noted that on August 9, 1895, a man named William King was brought before Justice Cole in the “Criminal Court No 2” for housebreaking. That date is close to the date on the back of my photo and the charge is the same. I’m convinced this is the man in my photo. But the clip provides frustratingly little information. It states that a man named William A. Hawkins provided “recognizance” and “surety” (bail) for King. It’s not much but it tells us that William had someone who was willing to put his money and reputation on the line to get him out of jail.

The DC newspapers carried no more coverage of court hearings for William King. There are too many William Hawkinses on the 1900 census in DC to figure out who he was. I also can’t find William King on that census either, so after he was released from jail, his trail goes cold.

The backs of the CDVs of William Wood and William King

I had better luck with William Wood.

According to a story in another Washington paper, the Evening Star, he was arrested for burglary along with Daniel Robinson by “Policeman Sutton” (note the name on the card) on August 23, 1895. Apparently detectives were also looking for the pair, but it was Sutton, a uniformed officer, who located and arrested them.

They were accused of breaking into the tailor shop of J. F. Stein at 621 F Street on the night of August 22, and stealing “four suits of clothes” from the shop. The reporter assumed Wood and Robinson were guilty, writing that “They effected an entrance by forcing open the rear window, and hid the plunder in a stable.” The article noted that the police claimed Robinson had done time in Alexandria but that Wood “is a stranger in police circles.” The article ended with the fact that both Wood and Robinson were photographed by the police on August 23rd. Nowhere did I find it mentioned that Wood was a juvenile. Apparently in that time and place, his youth didn’t make any difference in how his case was handled.

Wood and Robinson confessed to the crime the following day, according to the Washington Times. They also named another “colored youth,” Walchi Francis, as having stolen some of the items the police found. The stable where the clothing was stashed was identified as Quigley’s Stables on E Street. Now, just imagine a time when horses were the main mode of transportation in our nation’s capital.

The article continues: “The police think from the tales told by Wood and Robinson that Francis and they are wanted by the Virginia authorities for extensive burglaries across the river.” It seems odd that they would brag about other crimes to the cops. Could it be that force was applied to extract confessions?

Later that day Wood and Robinson were arraigned in Police Court, where they “waived examination.” The judge in the case, Judge Mills, held them “for the action of the grand jury.”

After more than a month in jail, Wood and Robinson pleaded guilty to house-breaking in Criminal Court No 2, the same courtroom where William King had been bonded out on a hot July day two months earlier. Judge Cox imposed a sentence of one year for each in the Albany Penitentiary, a federal prison with a storied history. The lockup was located far away in Albany, New York.

The Albany Penitentiary sounds like an unpleasant place to serve time. I hope William Wood survived his time there.

12 thoughts on ““Housebraking”

  1. The handwriting looks like it could be the same on the backs of the two cards, and the negative numbers are very close. It’s interesting to think that these photos might have stayed together since that time. I can’t help but wonder if that’s just a coincidence, or if there might be some other reason.

    Liked by 1 person

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