Introducing mugshots: The history of prisoner photo identification

By Dave St. Onge and Cameron Willis
Curators, Canada’s Penitentiary Museum

Mug shots and fingerprints are widely recognized as routine procedures when someone goes to prison. Law enforcement in Europe began photographing criminals in the 1840s. Yet, this was not done in Canadian prisons before the early 20th century. Why was this the case when the Canadian penitentiary system began in 1835?

Since the beginning, prison staff realized it was important to record descriptive information about each incarcerated person entering prison. This was particularly useful when an individual escaped custody.

Detail of page from the Prisoner's Record -Kingston Penitentiary, 1843 -1890.
Detail of page from the Prisoner's Record
Kingston Penitentiary, 1843 -1890.
(Library & Archives Canada. RG13 T2044 1047. pg 1)

When new prisoners arrived at a penitentiary, basic characteristics were written in a columnar register along with their assigned registration number. This was called the onvict Register. Characteristics noted were:

  • height
  • weight
  • religion
  • trade
  • place of origin
  • crime

Later, the register also included information such as marital status, ability to read and write, use of tobacco and alcohol, tattoos, scars, and unique features.

However, physical descriptions depended upon the subjective assessment of the officers. One person’s description of an individual’s appearance could differ significantly from someone else’s. A fair complexion to one person, might be described as a pale complexion by another.

Introduction of photography

With the emergence of photography in the 1830s, a new, accurate identification tool became available. Law enforcement agencies first photographed criminals in France and Belgium. French police officer Alphonse Bertillon is credited with the standard formatting of these photographs.

Bertillon invented the familiar ‘mug shot’ format with front and profile views of a criminal’s head and shoulders in 1879. To aid in identification, Bertillon also collected detailed measurements of various parts of an individual’s body. With the addition of fingerprinting, pioneered by Argentine police officer Juan Vucetich in 1891, Bertillon’s system went global.

The “Identification of criminals” was a key item on the agenda of the Dominion Penitentiaries Warden’s Conference held in Ottawa in January 1898. However, the adoption of photography and fingerprinting was a gradual and slow process. Penitentiary administrators felt that there were higher priorities, such as:

  • classification programs;
  • supplying work to offenders;
  • the construction of new facilities; and
  • staff training.

There was also disagreement about the high costs associated with the Bertillon system and the photographic process, as well as the training required to implement it.

With the vast distances in Canada and the slowness of travel and communication in the early 20th century, penitentiary wardens had considerable autonomy and implemented these systems on their own initiative.

The Bertillon System
comes to Canada

 A page from the Kingston Penitentiary Identification Register showing the provided clothing, c.1910.
A page from the Kingston Penitentiary Identification Register showing the provided clothing, c.1910. (Library & Archives Canada. RG73-C-6. Volume/box number: 558)

In 1902, British Columbia Penitentiary Warden John C. Whyte and Manitoba Penitentiary Warden Acheson Gosford Irvine attended the annual American Prison Congress in Philadelphia. The identification of criminals and, specifically, the Bertillon System was on the event’s agenda. The two wardens returned to Canada full of enthusiasm about this innovation.

At both institutions, hospital overseers took on the task of operating the camera equipment. Hospital overseers worked with the prison doctor to manage institutional hospitals. Other institutions, such as Kingston Penitentiary and St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary in Laval, Quebec, purchased or manufactured the required equipment. Funds to train photographers, however, were still lacking at those establishments.

In October 1906, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Edmund Newcombe, sent a memo to the Inspectors of Penitentiaries, about introducing the practice of photographing inmates in a standardized way across Canada. It also pointed out that the Minister of Justice, Sir Allen Aylesworth, felt identification photography was extremely important. Both Aylesworth and Newcombe agreed that costs or potential difficulties at individual penitentiaries should not be an obstacle.

First inmates photographed

Article announcing the commencement of photographing inmates at Kingston Penitentiary. (The Ottawa Citizen, April 12, 1910. pg.1)

It took several more years for this process to begin in earnest. Newspapers reported that the first round of photographing inmates for identification at Kingston Penitentiary started on April 11, 1910. Inspector Edward Foster of the Dominion Police was present to supervise. The Dominion Police, established in 1868, was the first federal police force in Canada and a precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The first few hundred mugshots were taken of prisoners who were already incarcerated. All were dressed in the same special civilian suit and necktie, rather than in their standard prison uniform.

By early June 1910, photographing and fingerprinting of newly arriving prisoners had become routine at Kingston Penitentiary. By October 5, 1910, Deputy Warden Albert B. Pipes at Dorchester Penitentiary, in New Brunswick, reported that his officers had also caught up on the backlog at that institution. The next year, Inspector Foster set up a national fingerprint and photograph identification bureau for the Dominion Police, and the penitentiaries began forwarding copies of their records to Ottawa.

: image of man’s head and shoulders facing camera and profileReception image of men wearing their street clothes, Dorchester Penitentiary, 1919.  (Canada's Penitentiary Museum Collection)
Two reception images of men wearing their street clothes, Dorchester Penitentiary, 1919.  (Canada's Penitentiary Museum Collection)

Photographing inmates
becomes common practice

By the 1920s, the practice of photographing inmates was well established across the country. Admission and discharge services generally were part of the Chief Keeper’s department at each institution. The usual practice was to take a photo upon reception “in the condition and clothing in which received,” as Warden W. Meighen of Manitoba Penitentiary explained. A second photograph was taken after the prisoner had been bathed, shaved, and dressed in the institutional uniform.

Image of inmate 983 at B.C. Penitentiary illustrating his appearance upon arrival in a suitImage of inmate 983 in prison clothes at B.C. Penitentiary illustrating his appearance after undergoing the admission procedures. c1906
Two images of inmate 983 at B.C. Penitentiary illustrating his appearance upon arrival, and again after undergoing the admission procedures. c1906 (Canada's Penitentiary Museum Collection.)

At this point, very detailed information about the new prisoner was entered into the Convict Register. Before release, a third photograph was taken with the soon-to-be released prisoner wearing a civilian discharge suit – hopefully never to be photographed like this again.

Offender Joseph Perry at reception in collared shirt with hair.Offender Joseph Perry on admission (1936) in prison clothes with shaved head.Offender Joseph Perry at discharge (1938) in suit with full hair. A series showing the three stages of photographing inmates: reception, admission (1936), and discharge (1938)(Canada's Penitentiary Museum Collection.)

A glimpse into Canadian history

Mug shots are significant because they may be the only surviving image of the physical appearance of a given individual, or of a particular era. Early mug shots offer a picture of a portion of the Canadian population at a given time. Sadly, the lower classes, often ignored or overlooked in the historical record, are the most represented.

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