Suspect Faces, Part 1: The Rogues’ Gallery

This is the first part of a three-part series exploring the different ways law enforcement has used human faces to investigate crime and identify suspects. Check back soon for parts two and three!
Since the very beginning of law enforcement, a central part of their work has been to identify suspected criminals. When it comes to identifying suspects, witnesses and victims can often vividly remember faces. But how can law enforcement turn a witness’ memory into a conviction? And how can recognizing the face of a convicted criminal prevent future crime? These difficult questions have led to all manner of innovations over the years, from the invention of the mug shot, to police sketch artists, to facial recognition software. In this three-part blog series, we will explore how law enforcement has used different technological innovations to translate our natural human tendency to remember faces into a useful crime-fighting tool.
With the rise of the scientific method and technological improvements during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, law enforcement agencies around the world were looking to turn these modern innovations into ways to improve their work. In particular, they hoped to take advantage of photography, which by this time was widely accessible and efficient enough to be used by busy police stations.
The most recognizable pairing of law enforcement and photography is of course the mug shot, invented in 1888 by Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer. Law enforcement in many countries had been photographing criminals for years at that point, but Bertillon took this process a step further by standardizing criminal photography. By ensuring that every photograph was taken the same way, Bertillon believed that criminals could be identified more quickly and accurately. A reporter who visited Bertillon’s office in 1893 described the process:
“The system of photography in use is peculiar to the service, and… is free from all conventional operations, for the photograph is made simply to be recognized. The poses chosen are: A perfect profile, since that gives a sort of anatomical cut of the face; then a full face view, since there one has the habitual expression and the pose of the head. The picture is never retouched, since scars, moles, and spots are such infallible means of identification. Absolute uniformity is sought in the size, form, and style of the different photographs… for the purpose they are admirably, brutally exact.” [1]
The mug shot was only one piece of the overall Bertillon system, which involved recording dozens of precise measurements of the criminal’s body and face. Standardization in both the photographs and measurements was key; for the information to be useful for future identification, measurements needed to be consistently taken using the same techniques, and photographs using the same spacing, lighting, and poses.

A mug shot and Bertillon measurement card from Illinois, 1912
2006.490.1.6, from the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum

The Bertillon measurements for a given criminal, along with the mug shot, were kept as records by law enforcement and began to allow for the quick recognition of repeat offenders. Until the widespread adoption of fingerprinting in the early 20th century, the Bertillon system was considered the standard method of criminal identification. It truly changed the criminal landscape; where before a pickpocket or horse thief in a large city may have avoided jail through anonymity, now local law enforcement could record and disseminate information about every criminal they arrested. “There is no more powerful motive for not committing a crime,” Bertillon said, “than the assurance that it will be followed by punishment.” [2]
During this same period, Irish-American New York (NY) Police Inspector Thomas Byrnes was also exploring the dissemination of criminal records and photographs. His focus was on giving the American public access to this information, rather than only law enforcement. Byrnes collected photographs and information about criminals around the country, and then published them widely. As he explains in the preface of his famous book, Professional Criminals of America, “it is my belief that if men and women who make a practice of preying upon society were known to others besides detectives and frequenters of the courts, a check, if not a complete stop, would be put to their exploits.” [3]

A cabinet card photograph of NYPD Inspector Thomas Byrnes, ca. 1880
2006.549.1.2, from the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum

Byrnes popularized the term “rogues’ gallery” to describe the large collections of photographs law enforcement had begun to collect of seasoned criminals. But these were largely limited to a wall or album in a police station, where the general public was unlikely to encounter them. Byrnes was concerned that Americans were largely ignorant of what criminals looked like and were capable of; a common belief at the time that criminality could be determined from one’s outward appearance meant that many of the people Byrnes arrested could operate “undetected” if they didn’t fit the stereotypical mold. But Byrnes hoped that he could educate the public and help them to identify criminals in their midst before a crime occurred:
“Here is where the public err. Their idea of burglars and all that have been gathered from books, and they look for Bill Sykses 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.” [4]

A page from Professional Criminals of America
2007.35.1, from the collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum

It is unsurprising that the innovations put into place by Bertillon and Byrnes are still used by law enforcement today. The mug shot remains as much a part of standard criminal processing today as it was 100 years ago, and the creation of cross-agency databases now allows law enforcement to share information about criminals better than ever before. The idea of spreading criminal photographs to the public has taken many forms over the years, from television shows to local newspaper features to websites and social media. Modern law enforcement owes a great debt to these early innovators.
Lauren Sydney is the Director of Collections and Registration at the National Law Enforcement Museum.
Interested in exploring the rogues’ gallery for yourself? Inspector Byrnes’ book, Professional Criminals of America, is available online via the Internet Archive:
[1] Tarbell, Ida M. “Identification of Criminals. The Scientific Method in Use in France.” McClure’s Magazine, Volume II, December 1893-May 1894, 368.
[2] Ibid., 368.
[3] Byrnes, Thomas, Professional Criminals of America (New York: Cassell & Company, 1886), preface.
[4] Ibid., 54.