The First Police Rogues' Gallery in America

16, May 2017

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? What if someone told you that this law-enforcement innovation developed right here in St. Louis?

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 rather uncooperative sitters. The photos were then displayed in a public place in the station where police officers and the general public could view them. Thus, the country's first-ever rogues’ gallery was born. (The photos in it were called rogues' gallery photos and preceded mug shots, a term that wasn't coined until the 20th century.)

Color scans of John Jordan image in the St. Louis Rogues' Gallery CollectionLeft: Sixth-plate ambrotype of John Jordan, dated January 15, 1858. Right: Back of the ambrotype describing Jordan as a 25-year-old bagman and whorehouse pimp. Missouri History Museum.

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 at the time thought their investment could pay off with a major reduction in crime.

On April 13, 1858, six months after the St. Louis gallery opened, the Daily Missouri Republican had this to say about the experiment’s success:

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.

Almost 200 photographs from the St. Louis Rogues’ Gallery, dated 1857 to 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 even have names, dates, and other information about the subjects written on their reverse sides.

Color scan of a quarter-plate tintype from the St. Louis Rogues' Gallery CollectionQuarter-plate tintype, ca. 1867. The unidentified individual in this photo is grimacing in an effort to disguise his features. Missouri History Museum.

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,” criminals 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. (Nowadays we call this type of criminal a con man.) There are even photographs of people who served time at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

The marginalized characters photographed for rogues’ galleries were viewed as the dregs of society, regardless of whether they were truly guilty. As a result, their photographs offer us a unique and fascinating portrait of the underclass and criminal class in both St. Louis and urban America at a time of great change.

—Shayne Davidson, author of Captured and Exposed: The First Police Rogues’ Gallery in America

EDITOR’S NOTE: Captured and Exposed is a new enhanced eBook published by MHM Press. It’s available via the iBooks Store and Amazon.com.

Membership appeal