Mug Books: An Unusual Avenue of Genealogical Inquiry

Today’s post was written by Claire Kluskens, Genealogy/Census Subject Matter Expert and Digital Projects Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Photographs are highly sought-after by many family historians, especially when such precious artifacts are lost due to relocating, estrangement, natural disaster, or simple neglect. They serve not only as a visual aid to remembering loved ones, but also as a rare means of tracing physical family resemblance through generations. As most genealogists learn, however, the historical record often reveals unexpected information about our ancestors. For instance, how would you react if you discovered that a photograph of your great-great-grandfather was also accompanied by details about his criminal past?

The National Archives has digitized 717 cards from two Identification Books (National Archives Identifier 1460515)—also known as “mug books”—that the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police compiled circa 1878-1896.  According to the series description, these photographs assisted police officers and victims of crime in identifying criminal suspects. While more than half of the cards are for persons who were arrested in Washington, DC, the remainder were obtained from the New York City and Philadelphia police departments, with a few possibly from the Baltimore police department.

The front of each identification card has a photograph of the person. The reverse side contains identifying information. Some individuals have two or more cards, and a few were photographed in multiple years. The majority of the arrests were for theft such as burglary, housebreaking by day or night, or highway robbery. Some earned a description as swindler, confidence man (con man), bunco man, or bank sneak by committing theft by deception.  There are also several murderers.  Most of the crimes were committed between 1883 and 1890.

More than half of the cards are for persons arrested in the District of Columbia. These cards usually include the person’s name, alias (if any), crime, age, color and/or complexion, place of birth, trade, height, weight, hair color, eye color, and date of arrest and names of arresting officers. The card may also describe tattoos, scars, and other physical characteristics, such as a limp, lost teeth, deafness, and eye problems.  The card below is an example of one created in the District of Columbia:

 Identification Card No. 277, Henry J. Dunn, alias Peter Mudd (National Archives Identifier 27448238)

The arrest dates on the mugshots also suggest interesting connections. For instance, over 100 cards were for persons arrested on March 4, 1885 or 1889—the inauguration dates of Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, respectively.  These individuals likely sought easy targets for theft among the inaugural revelers who let down their guard while celebrating.

Identification Card No. 190, Harry Stevens (National Archives Identifier 75449274), arrested on the presidential inaugural date of March 4, 1885.

While most of those arrested were born in Washington, DC, others were born or had connections to MarylandNew YorkMassachusettsMissouriNebraskaOhioVirginia, and elsewhere. Most were U.S.-born, but there were also natives of England, GermanyIrelandItalyPoland, and Cuba.  Nearly all those photographed were men, but there are a few women, too.

Identification Card No. 413, Jennie Brown (National Archives Identifier 75447975).

In addition to cards created in the District of Columbia, there are cards were obtained by the Metropolitan Police from the New York City Police Department or Philadelphia Police Department. The reverse side of these cards are annotated near the bottom with the abbreviation “N.Y.” for New York or “P” or “Phila.” for Philadelphia. These cards are usually undated but provide the person’s name, alias, age, height, weight, and crime. In addition, a few cards may have been obtained from the Baltimore Police Department.

Researchers interested in hair and clothing styles from the 1880s may find that this record series provides useful insights into the attire of ordinary people. The men often sported a mustachebeard, hat, necktie, or bow tie. Descriptions of scars, tattoos and India ink spots are also given.

There are other record groups and series at the National Archives that contain mugshots, such as those described in another of our blog posts, Faces of Counterfeiters Past: Mugshots from the United States Secret Service Collections.

What sources have you found that provided surprising information about your family’s history?

The records described in this post are housed within textual holdings at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Researchers should contact  Archives1reference@nara.gov with questions.

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