A mug shot is a photograph of an arrested suspect or convicted criminal. The police have used them to create identification records since the middle of the 19th Century. However, they are much more than bureaucratic documents. Mug shots are captivating images that can capture emotions. Possibly this is due to the interesting questions they raise: What crime did this person commit? Were they guilty? Do they look like a criminal? How do they look? How did they get there?
These late 19th Century mugshots from New Zealand Police Museum answer some of the above questions and tell stories behind these photographs. These mug shots also give us a rich window into the New Zealand Police’s history, the people in the images, and what criminal identification means in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Police Force was officially established on September 1, 1886, and they began collecting photographs of prisoners that same year. The first pictures look very different from modern mug shots. This was primarily due to the lack of officially trained police photographers in New Zealand. Instead, the police used commercial photographers and amateur camera enthusiasts to take the mug shots. As a result, the style of early mug shots in the New Zealand Police Museum collection varies significantly from one photograph to the next. A common feature of mug shots is the display of criminals’ hands. Fingers missing, scarring, and the general shape and condition of the prisoners’ hands can all aid in identifying a suspect. Having hands in mug shots provided another way for police to identify suspects in 1886, before fingerprinting was introduced.
A cook by trade, described as having a sailor, flag, anchor and female tattooed on his right arm, and four flags, a star and a shield on his left arm. He also has two bullet wounds on his right thigh, and previous convictions for vagrancy, larceny and sheep stealing. Photograph taken on April 6, 1887.