A few years after the invention of photography in the 1840s, police began photographing the faces of known criminals. These mugshots became standardized as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency began using them on wanted posters in lieu of drawings and descriptions. By the 1870s, the agency had amassed the largest collection of mugshots in the U.S. People believed you could tell a lot from looking at a mugshot. Scientists even studied mugshots to see if physical traits could predict criminal behavior (alas, they can’t). But a glimpse back at the Nebraska State Penitentiary mugshot collection can give us some insight on the life of crime from the 1880s to the 1930s. Here are some of the most notorious inmates and what they did:
Inmate #3566: George Ray
Long exposure times in front of the camera made smiles a rarity in 19th century photographs. By the end of the 19th century, advancements in photographic technology had reduced exposure time to seconds, but by then people already associated professional photography with a serious or somber occasion. The Nebraska State Penitentiary found a rare smile in inmate #3566, George H. Ray. Despite having been sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter, Ray could not resist showing off a goofy grin.