Why Crooks?

My interest in tracing ne’re-do-wells goes back to my grandfather’s family tree. He was famously tight-lipped about his family, but he did let slip one intriguing detail: He claimed that his uncles, August (known as “Gussie”) and Willie, died in six inches of water.

The implication was that they both were so drunk they fell into a puddle of water, couldn’t get up and drowned. As a kid I thought it was a funny story.

As an adult I came to realize the story is heartbreaking and it was no wonder my grandfather didn’t want to dwell on his family history. By then he was long gone but I had become quite interested in genealogy. I wanted to know if there was any truth to the story, so I began to research my grandfather’s family tree.

It turned out that the story probably wasn’t true or at least it couldn’t be proven. Gussie died at age 67 of “creeping paralysis” from an illness that was likely related to lead poisoning — he’d been a house painter all his life. However his wife died of liver cirrhosis when she was only 38, so drinking to excess may have been a lifestyle choice in their household.

The other uncle, Willie, was alive and well in June 1910, when he was counted for the federal census, but he was dead by mid-September 1910. He left behind a wife and four small children. No death record has ever come to light for him. His granddaughter heard a story that his body was unidentified and was buried where it was found. Then somehow he was identified, dug up and reburied in the same family plot where his brother would join him 23 years later. The story has a lot of holes, but it could be related to the “drowned in six inches of water” story. At any rate there’s a mystery about his death and I’ve never been able to solve it.

I also discovered that Gussie had served a term at Leavenworth in the late 1880s, when it was still a military prison. He had gone AWOL from the army. Eventually he was caught, court-martialed, tried, found guilty and sent to prison for three years. (He was lucky there was no war on at the time. If there had been he might have faced a firing squad). I searched for a photo but there was no mugshot of him because Leavenworth was not photographing prisoners when Gussie was incarcerated there.

My search for a prisoner photo of Gussie led to my interest in vintage mugshots. I began to collect them and research the people in them. There’s always a story behind a mugshot if you’re willing to dig to find it.

My book latest book is a biography of Sophie Lyons, an infamous 19th century criminal.

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