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Photography in Prisons
Published in "Photography in Prisons" by S.W. Wetmore in "Photography", Volume 1, No.2, May, 1884, p.10.
Photography In Prisons.
BY S. W. WETMORE.
Recording Clerk and Photographer, Illinois State Penitentiary Joliet, Ills.
For some years past, the subject of photography as a means of ferreting out crime, aud of producing an unfailing record for the aid of officers of the law, in the identification of habitual or professional criminals, has attracted considerable attention from police and prison authorities. But or some cause they have failed to generally.adopt it as an aid. Now that the dry plate process of taking pictures has been so simplified, the police department or prison that does not adopt photography as a means of adding valuable information to its system of records, must soon consider itself as far behind the times. Every well equipped police station and place of imprisonment could at small expense have its own photographer.
During a period of ten years past, I have recorded upon the register of the Joliet penitentiary, the descriptions of over eight thousand criminals or convicts that have been received at that institution during that time.
The description of a prisoner as now taken at Joliet is a very complete affair, giving not only his general appearance, color of hair, eyes and complexion, but goes into the smallest details, showing the location and number of moles, scars, India ink marks or designs, every peculiarity of feature and build, shape of nose, mouth and head, all being carefully written out by the officer that receives the new convict. The officer who has once known the criminal as a convict, can be pretty sure of being able to identify him years afterward, provided he can get a copy of the prison descriptive list to refer to.
But complete as is the system of the prison records and descriptions, there has always seemed to me to be something lacking to make it absolutely correct and a sure means for the future identification of the criminal, and that something was a photograph.
Heretofore it has been almost an impossibility to have it done by a regular photographer; the expense and trouble would be too great.
When my attention was first called to dry plate photography it struck me at once as being the very thing wanted. A grand thing for penitentiaries and penal institutions, the great homes of society's malefactors.
It took me several years to convince the authorities of Joliet prison that a photographer's outfit was a real necessity to the institution. They thought it would be a fine thing to have a picture of each convict that entered the prison, but imagined it would be an impossible thing to do, the convicts would object, and it would cause great trouble and expense. One old prison officer said to me, "What! take the pictures of convicts? It cannot, be done. You would have a fine time taking the mugs of the 'old timers,' wouldn't ye?" Another officer who had spent all his life in handling criminals, said : " When I was on the Chicago police force I was often detailed to accompany the squad thai went to the photographer's to have the pictures of some hard cases taken for the rogues' gallery, and I've seen them try for a whole hour to get the picture of one man, he would run out his tongue, squint his eyes, twist his mouth and blow out his cheeks, making all kinds of contortions, and even when we put the "come-alongs" on him and twisted them up until he yelled with pain, he would'nt give in. The only way you can successfully photograph the hard ones is to catch them when they are asleep; although I once saw two central office detectives administer chloroform to Paddy Kent, a St. Louis crook, and they got his picture in that way, but it looked like the picture of a corpse. I remember one day, when a notorious Cleveland thief named Joe Dubuque was taken over to the artist to have his picture taken to adorn the central office Rogue's gallery. Joe went along as meek as a lamb, never offered a word of objection, but the moment the artist uncapped the lens, Joe sprang from his seat and kicked a hole clear through the side of the camera, and before we could get hold of him again, he had succeeded in putting an ele gant head on the photographer." Such stories and experiences as related above, made me doubt the practicability of prison photography, yet I contended that there was a great difference between an unconvicted criminal and one wearing the stripes behind the bars. The whole demeanor and bearing of a man changed from the moment that he heard the great iron door clang to behind him as he entered the prison to serve his sentence; previous to his coming, he was bold and defiant, but when his person was covered with the zebra suit, his nerve left him; then he was but a mere machine ready to obey and do the bidding of those in authority the hardest of criminals becoming timid and nervous on their first entrance into prison, not knowing what fate might be in store for them in the dreary life behind the prison walls.
Outside, the professional crook would not permit any artist to copy his features. The villain would stand six months in the bridewell, or live on county jail diet for weeks, or even accept a five years' term in the penitentiary, but the hardest steps in his whole criminal career would be to sit still and have his "phiz" taken, knowing that it would be placed in every prominent Rogues' gallery in the country.
I believed I could make a success of prison photography, and agitated the subject until the authorities finally gave me permission to order an outfit and try the experiment. I knew nothing about the art or what sort of an apparatus was necessary for our purpose. I sent to New York for Anthony's catalogue and from it selected a cheap 5x8 amateur outfit, something entirely unsuited for the purpose,-but I found that out soon enough. I received the outfit in December last and at once commenced to study up dry plates, chemicals, developers and processes. I exposed plates on every person about the warden's house and in the course of a few weeks considered myself far enough advanced in the art to attempt taking pictures of the convicts. The warden suggested January 1, 1884, as a good time to commence, and if I made a success of it that we would take a picture of every new arrival after that date.
On January 3, the regular monthly delegation of convicted felons came down from Chicago. The gang consisted of twenty-three men, among whom were some of the hardest cases that ever entered the prison, several fourth and fifth termers among them, criminals that have known the interiors of half the jails and prisons in the country.
After the new recruits had been fully initiated into the stripes, I had my outfit conveyed to a small building standing in the center of the prison yard, where I could utilize a side light and screen. The twenty-three men were marched into the room and seated. I saw a queer look flash into the faces of the men, the moment they saw my camera and began to realize why they were brought there. A dozen curious guards were on hand to witness the expected circus, which they had predicted would occur when I attempted to take the pictures.
I had provided a couple of citizens' coats to be put on by the convicts when their pictures were to be taken, and when the first man was called up, and ordered to remove his striped jacket and put on the citizen's coat, I imagined that the other convicts, who were intently watching proceedings, felt relieved when they found out that their pictures was to be taken in citizens' dress and not the striped prison garb. John W. Pallson was my first sitter, a notorious burglar, this being his sixth term at Joliet prison. The coat was buttoned well up to his chin to hide the striped vest and shirt beneath, and he was seated before the camera. I was decidedly nervous myself, not knowing what' might be the result and came very near knocking the instrument over while trying to get a focus on Pallson's ugly mug. From beneath the black cloth I could see that he was in no good humor, his face wearing an awful scowl, and seemed as if he was contemplating the idea of kicking my instrument into the middle of next week. I finally got the slide drawn, and directed the convict to keep his eyes on a bit of paper I had placed on the wall, then I uncapped the lens, counted ten seconds, and replaced the cap. The deed was done, the convict had not even winked during the exposure. All my nerve came back. I called up the next victim, a diminutive red-haired customer with a hard record, but he took his dose of dry plate like a little man, and never kicked. In forty minutes I had exposed plates on the whole gang and saw them march away to the solitary prison, to meditate over their fates. The guards who had said it would be an impossibility to successfully photograph the convicts, had also silently stolen away without a word to say, while I was left there monarch of the ranch with twenty-three undeveloped plates in my holders. My convict assistant packed up the outfit and we made double quick time to the warden's house where my dark room is located.
My first batch of portraits was pretty fair, and considered good for a beginner. When the prints were ready I mounted them in the "Prison Album," which is a large book, made with sheets of card-board for leaves, and substantially bound; each page is ruled off into twenty squares, each square to contain a print and below it the prison registered number of the convict. No names appear in the book. An average of 700 convicts are received at Joliet prison annually and when this album is completed it will contain the pictures of over two thousand criminals. The negatives are filed away in preservers and kept for future use. Should a convict escape, hundreds of his pictures would be sent in all directions for his recapture, and on the back of each card would ba printed the description of the man with an offer of fifty dollars reward for his capture.
The "Prison Album" of the Joliet penitentiary is destined to become one of the greatest Rogues galleries in the world. It already contains the pictures of nearly 300 men who have entered the prison this year.
S. W. Wetmore.