Mug shots: Bringing your black sheep to life

Mug shots: Bringing your black sheep to life


Any genealogist that has unearthed a major family scandal will tell you that it’s a fine line we walk between tell-all historians and protectors of our family’s reputation. If exposing the skeletons in your family closet makes you nervous (and let’s face it, every family has them), then let this posting be your coming-out inspiration.

Before there was Jerry Springer and reality-tv, reputations were the obsession of our ancestors. There were rules for social engagement so detailed that simply forgetting to bring calling cards on a visit could stain your reputation. So it is no great mystery that many people remained tight-lipped and never spoke about scandalous family events. If just one of those ancestors spilled the beans, imagine how many years it could have saved us modern-day sleuths.

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Even after you’ve finally cracked the code on an ancestor’s disreputable behavior or bad judgement, getting your hands on the hard proof isn’t so easy. Take the mug shot for example. Developed in the mid-1800s by Pinkerton Detective Agency, mug shots are pay-dirt for genealogists researching criminal records. If you are lucky enough to live in a state that allows access to mug shots, celebrate your good fortune. If you haven’t taken advantage of that liberty and ordered your ancestor’s record, do it immediately as some states deny access, even with a Freedom of Information Act request.

There is tremendous historical value in mug shots. Not the least of which is a snapshot of an important event in the life of your ancestor. Imagine the many things they must have felt at the precise moment the photo was snapped. Perhaps it was shame and fear that their crime would be broadcast in the newspapers. Perhaps it was apprehension over what would come next and whether they would receive a fair trial. Or maybe, it was a familiar process to them and they knew exactly what the justice system and prison life was like.

Another aspect of the mug shot that makes it so compelling is that it captures the authentic, unadorned appearance of an ancestor’s face and generally includes both a front and profile view (something rarely shown in a formal photograph). Ancestors were not dressed in their finest clothing with their hair coiffed and their hands carefully positioned. This was what they looked like after a rough day and you’ll likely never see that elsewhere.

But the most important historical value of the mug shot is that it simply may be the only existing photographic record of an ancestor. This is why I am a huge advocate of mug shots being public record. By sealing them, states deprive the inmate’s future family members from ever seeing their face. These images are immensely important to people who would never otherwise see an image of their ancestor.

So what should you do as a genealogist if you come across a black sheep in your family? If the ancestor in question is deceased and has no living children who may be sensitive about the topic, by all means, go ahead and publish your findings. After all, genealogy is about documenting the history of your family and this is the good stuff. If, however, the person is living or has children who may be offended, I recommend documenting your findings and making sure that you carefully preserve them for the future, but hold off on publishing them until you have spoken with the family. Genealogy should bring families together, not alienate them.


2 Responses to “Mug shots: Bringing your black sheep to life”

  1. Jessica says:

    I actually had this very situation come up with my great-grandfather. We have no pictures of him and found out he had been arrested and jailed (quite the scandal) through old newspaper articles. I approached the county and was told that records from that era had been destroyed because they were “of limited genealogical value.” Very disappointing. I’ve always suspected he was quite the handsome guy but I’d love to know for sure.

    • Sarah Ashley says:

      Thanks for commenting, Jessica. Yes, it is very frustrating to know that important historical documents are being destroyed. I think the genealogical community should band together and make their case for why criminal records should be preserved and mugshots made publicly available.

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