Would you believe that photography became a crime-fighting tool fairly early in its existence, at a time when some viewed the technology as utterly unbelievable and others had never even heard of it?
In October 1857 the St. Louis Police Department, desperate to keep track of known and suspected criminals in a rapidly growing and changing city, began taking arrested individuals to local commercial photography studios where professional photographers made portraits of the arrestees—some of whom were uncooperative sitters. The photos were then displayed in a public place in the station where police officers and the general public could view them and the America’s first-ever rogues’ gallery was born.
St. Louis’s rogues’ gallery was a groundbreaking approach to crime fighting. Other large American cities quickly embraced the concept, starting with the New York City Police Department, which launched a similar gallery just one month later. Creating and maintaining a rogues’ gallery wasn’t cheap, but authorities were quickly convinced their investment could pay off with a major reduction in crime.
Most of our readers know that in this city, when the police have reason to believe that a man is a thief, a counterfeiter or any other sort of scoundrel, they pull him up and secure his shadow ere his substance fades, so that in many cases, by hanging up in a public place the pictures thus obtained, the rascals are either driven out of town by this means, or get to be so well known that their piratical business is materially affected.
— Daily Missouri Republican, St. Louis, Missouri, April 13, 1858
Almost 200 photographs from the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery, made between 1857 and 1867 have survived. Because many of these photos are ambrotypes, which were made on glass, their continued existence is something of a miracle. Other surviving images are more rugged tintypes, which were made on metal. Some of the photos have names, dates, and other information about the subjects written on their reverse sides.
Many of the people photographed were accused of crimes such as shoplifting, burglary, and pickpocketing. Counterfeiters were also well represented in the gallery. So were “confidence men,” (aka “con men”) who played upon the gullibility and greed of their victims, luring them into scams where the victims hoped to make an easy profit but ended up losing a bundle. There are also photographs of people who served time at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
The marginalized and underworld characters photographed for rogues’ galleries were viewed as the dregs of society, regardless of whether or not they were truly guilty. As a result, their photographs offer us a unique and fascinating portrait of people in urban America at a time of great change.
The book includes high resolution color images of all 193 photos in the collection, along with background on the named individuals.