By Walker Schneider (@WalkerSchneider)
Today crime-fighting relies on massive criminal databases. In the United States, this practice can be traced back to Gilded Age New York City and the Rogues’ Gallery, the great-grandfather of modern criminal databases. Deep within the New York City Police Department’s headquarters on Mulberry Street, the Rogues’ Gallery was a hulking mass of dark polished wood that stood five feet tall and four feet wide. Its two doors opened to reveal large wooden panels that could be flipped through like pages in a book. Each panel held a hundred photographic portraits of known criminals from around the world.
By 1895, the Rogues’ Gallery was home to over fifteen hundred such portraits, with additional empty panels for future entries. Every photograph in the Rogues’ Gallery had a card attached to its back with information about the criminal ranging from their name to identifying features to their most recent movements. In 1886, the head of New York City’s Detective Bureau bragged that the Rogues’ Gallery was “probably the most complete criminal directory in the country.”
As American policing evolved from local efforts to inter-regional (and even international) collaborations, these photographic portraits and their accompanying information were shared with other police departments within the United States and in Europe. By the mid-twentieth century, the practices popularised by the Rogues’ Gallery had become standardised throughout the United States and Europe. You might know them as mugshots and “Most Wanted” lists. So, the next time the face of a known criminal flashes across the news, think back to Gilded Age New York City and its giant criminal encyclopaedia, the Rogues’ Gallery.
 Byrnes, T., Professional Criminals of America (New York: Cassell & Company, 1886), p.54.
Image: ‘Police Headquarters, The “Rogue’s Gallery”. The mug shot collection at the New York City Police Headquarters.’ Taken by Richard Hoe Lawrence (1858-1936) for Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914). Used under Museum of the City of New York Collections‘ Fair Use Guide.