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Professional Criminals of America
New York, 1886

    Why Thieves Are Photographed
    Thomas Byrnes

  1. Where, it does not matter, but in a place of amusement which blazed with light and was radiant with the shimmer of silks, the flash of jewels, and the artificial glories with which wealth and fashion surround themselves, a tall, well dressed man was standing, with a lady on his arm, waiting till the outgoing throng gave him exit. There was a judge of the Supreme Court just behind him, and he was elbowed by a banker whose name is mighty on "the street." Suave manners, a face massive and intelligent, apparel in unexceptionable taste—he had them all, and yet there was something about the man that recalled to a reporter who saw him there, other and strangely remote associations. It certainly was not the dress or attitude or air that seemed familiar. Nor was it the quick, sharp eyes that lighted and seemed indeed the most notable features of the countenance. Nor could it be the neatly trimmed whiskers or the somewhat sallow cheeks they covered. No, it was none of these. And certainly no suggestion of recognition could lie in the thin hair, carefully brushed back from a forehead that bulged out into two knobs and was crossed by some deep lines. But yet as that same forehead was bowed for a moment, what was there in it that recalled something—a man or a statue or a picture? Something that memory certainly did not bring to mind as the seat of a living man's brain, a part of a living man's face; but something that had been seen fixed, immovable, with unchanging profile and unvarying lines.

  2. In a moment the head was erect again, the face smiling, and in the change the fancied familiarity melted, but did not die away. It was still there, and for a moment it was intensified as a sudden look of recognition, a look that had a flash of malice in it. came into the sharp eves. But without any salutation being given they dropped, and the face was turned away. This passed almost in the fraction of a second; but the reporter noticed the look and turned to see where it was directed. What he saw quickened his interest. A man was standing near the entrance watching the very face which had caught his attention. And this man was a Central Office detective.

  3. "That man's face seems familiar to me," remarked the reporter, indicating the retreating figure. "You know him, do you not?"

  4. "I? Yes, I know him."

  5. "I wonder where I have seen him."

  6. "He is seen sometimes about town."

  7. "But I think I've seen him under some peculiar circumstances.—"

  8. "He has been visible under peculiar circumstances," said the detective. "He is a professional criminal, and was last sentenced for burglary."

  9. A burglar! This prim, genteel, thoughtful looking personage? He would be a minister or merchant or physician on the first flash to nine men out of ten. Here in the flare of the gaslight, in the heart of fashion, with a judge at his back and a millionaire at his elbow—a burglar? Not low browed, sullen, with stealthy glance and hunted air—not at all as fancy and romance have pictured him. But holding his head as high as the next. And with that, memory, faithful to the impression that bulging forehead and its deep lines had wrought, raked out of the past a wooden frame in a mysterious chamber and a picture it enclosed of a bowed, distorted face, through whose half closed eyelids two small specks seemed to glare maliciously, and a forehead with two knobs and some black lines upon it. That was it. The picture was this man's portrait, and the mysterious chamber where it hung was the Rogues' Gallery.

  10. Sitting there the next day the reporter spoke of the impression made by the picture, and how, amid surroundings so misleading and under appearances so altered, the bowed forehead and its dark lines in the gallery of malefactors had flashed out in the gay and fashionable throng, calling attention to their owner, as Cain's mark had done of old. The conversation which ensued is correctly given by the reporter in the following words:

  11. "In that," said Inspector Byrnes, "does the usefulness of the Rogues' Gallery lie. There are people who look at the pictures and say:—'Of what good can these twisted and unnatural faces be? Were their owners met in the streets their countenances would be composed. They would be altogether free of these distortions, by which they have tried to cheat the purpose of the police in photographing them. No one would know them then.' Well, that is all wrong. The very cleverest hands at preparing a false physiognomy for the camera have made their grimaces in vain. The sun has been too quick for them, and has imprisoned the lines of the profile and the features and caught the expression before it could be disguised. There is not a portrait here but has some marked characteristic by which you can identify the man who sat for it. That is what has to be studied in the Rogues' Gallery—detail. A general idea of the looks of a person derived from one of these pictures may be very misleading. The person himself will try to make it so by altering his appearance. He can grow or shave off a beard or mustache, he can change the color of either, he may become full faced or lantern jawed in time. But the skilled detective knows all this and looks for distinguishing marks peculiar to his subject. You understand me. It was a forehead drew your attention. The lines of the forehead would probably be a detective's study in that burglar's case. It did not matter much what disguise he assumed. That feature would remain a tell-tale."

  12. "Have detectives frequently succeeded in singling out by their portraits men who have tried to deceive the camera?"

  13. "Quite frequently. The very men who have gone to the most trouble to make their pictures useless have been betrayed by them. Look at 'Pop' Tighe, over there, with his phiz screwed up like a nut-cracker; he thought that he could play the sneak without any one getting on to him from that likeness. But he made a mistake, like the rest. So did 'Bill' Vosburgh, and even 'Jim' Reynolds, who is grinning down from the corner there, with his head away back and his features all distorted, could not get the best of the sun, and the camera caught enough of him to satisfy his victims."

  14. "Then the pictures must not be considered merely as portraits when a criminal is to be identified by them?"

  15. "In some cases they are quite sufficient. You see there is not much of that old dodge of distorting the features attempted nowadays. When we have a man with a strong case against him he knows that his portrait in some shape or other must be added to the gallery, and he is shown that it is absurd to try and defeat the purposes of justice. That makes him resigned to his fate, and all our recent artistic acquisitions are good ones. A point is made to have the best we can get, for of late photography has been an invaluable aid to the police. In the Federal service and in all the big cities they are following our example. But this is probably the most complete criminal directory in the country. I say in some cases because there are numbers of instances where a criminal appears in public under circumstances far different from those under which he is brought here. You yourself have seen what a swell cracksman may look like when he has the means and the taste to dress himself. Well, there are scores of men and women whose appearance in the streets gives no hint to their character. Deception is their business, and they have to study its arts carefully. It is true there are criminals brought here who even in sitting for a photograph in the Rogues' Gallery show a weakness to appear to advantage. I have seen women especially whose vanity cropped out the moment the muzzle of the camera was turned on them. But that is infrequent, and you must look for the faces you see here in other shapes and with other accompaniments when you catch sight of them in public."

  16. "Do the general run of offenders, then, put on style?"

  17. "They all have their weaknesses. Of course the lower class of them spend their money in the way their instincts dictate. Some are slovenly hulks of fellows who pride themselves on shabbiness. To some shabbiness is a part of their business. Then there are others of the flashy order who run into extremes in dress, and copy the gamblers and variety theatre performers in their attire. But there are many—and they are of the higher and more dangerous order of criminals—who carry no suggestion of their calling about with them. Here is where the public err. Their idea of burglars and all that have been gathered from books, and they look for Bill Sykeses and Flash Tobby Crackitts, whereas the most modest and most gentlemanly people they meet may be the representatives of their very characters. Remember that nearly all the great criminals of the country are men who lead double lives. Strange as it may appear, it is the fact that some of the most unscrupulous rascals who ever cracked a safe or turned out a counterfeit were at home model husbands and fathers. In a great many cases wives have aided their guilty partners in their villainy, and the children, too, have taken a hand in it. But in as many all suggestion of the criminal's calling was left outside the front door. There was George Engles, the forger. His family lived quietly and respectably, mingled with the best of people and were liked by all they met. George Leonidas Leslie, alias Howard, who was found dead near Yonkers, probably made away with by his pals, was a fine-looking man, with cultured tastes and refined manners. 'Billy' Porter and 'Johnny' Irving were not so spruce, but they would pass for artisans, and Irving is said, in all his villainy, to have well provided for his old mother and his sisters. ' Johnny the Greek' paid for his little girls' tuition at a convent in Canada, and had them brought up as ladies, without ever a suspicion of their father's business reaching them. I know this same thing to be done by some of the hardest cases we have to contend with. One of the most noted pickpockets in the country had children whose dress and manners won them general admiration. There is nothing to mark people of that stamp as a class."

  18. "Is physiognomy any guide?"

  19. "A very poor one. Judge for yourself. Look through the pictures in the Rogues' Gallery and see how many rascals you find there who resemble the best people in the country. Why, you can find some of them, I dare say, sufficiently like personal acquaintances to admit of mistaking one for the other. By the by, that is no uncommon occurrence, and the more you consider it the more readily you will come to appreciate how easy it is for a detective to pick up the wrong man. Time and again I have seen victims of thieves when called upon in court to identify a prisoner seated among a number of on-lookers pick out his captors, or a court clerk, or a reporter as the offender."

  20. "Is it usual for criminals to be so trim?"

  21. "No, not many of them. You see thieves must dress up to their business. I do not mean that they should indicate their business by their dress. No, no; just the opposite. They attire themselves so as to attract the least attention from the class of people among whom they wish to operate. To do this they must dress like this class. If they are among poor people, they dress shabbily. If among well-to-do folks, put on style. If among sporting men, do the flash act. It is a great thing to escape notice, and some men have a good deal of trouble to do it. There is 'Wess.' Allen. The scar on his cheek and the missing eye would mark him anywhere, but he manages to be so sober in his dress that no one notices him. 'Deafy' Price, a railroad pickpocket, is a capital fellow for gaining confidence and leaving scant recollection of his dress and features. Kehoe, 'the Mourner,' and his wife had faces thoroughly adapted for their business, which was to pick pockets at wakes and funerals. They were the most solemn looking pair you ever saw."

  22. "You then consider the popular idea of criminals' appearance is all wrong?"

  23. "I will not say that. River thieves and low burglars are as hard-looking brutes as can be found. So are a good many of the more desperate fellows. 'Ned' Farrell, the butcher-cart thief, is a type of the bully—big and brawny and wicked-looking. "Big Frank' McCoy had all the inches he required, but although there was a sinister flavor about him, he could look the gentleman. Nugent, the Manhattan Bank burglar, carried a good deal of his old business of a butcher about with him in his appearance, but there was something about him that suggested the criminal. There are numbers of the confidence men, too, who in spite of their gentlemanly dress and conversational powers, look the very incarnation of sharpers. In fact, it is a bad thing to judge by appearances, and it is not always safe to judge against them. Experience of men is always needed to place them right."