Friday, September 19, 2014

All photos from Small Town Noir; click to enlarge

I've recently become aware of a fantastic project by a Scottish parliamentary reporter named Diarmid Mogg, who has an endearingly niche-specific hobby: He collects mid-century mug shots and their accompanying police reports from one particular city — New Castle, Pennsylvania, a now-faded manufacturing town about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Then he searches the online archives of New Castle's daily newspaper, The New Castle News, to learn more about the arrestees, their alleged crimes, and the anything else he can discover about their lives. Because the News was the type of paper that documented virtually every aspect of its local community, Mogg is sometimes able to piece together a surprisingly vivid picture of a mug shot subject's life, from birth announcement to obituary. In other cases, the pickings are slimmer. Either way, Mogg chronicles all of this in his wonderful blog, Small Town Noir, which he's been writing since 2009.

Mogg is a sharp enough storyteller to recognize that the crimes these people were accused of were often much less interesting than the other aspects of their lives. In the case of the mug shots shown above, for example, the gentleman in the photos was named Frank Heckathorn. Mogg spends eight nicely crafted paragraphs explaining how Heckathorn and his cousins had been picking blackberries in the woods in 1921 when they came upon the unconscious body of a badly beaten 14-year-old girl. This turns out to be completely unrelated to the Heckathorn's mug shots, which resulted from an arrest for indecent exposure in 1943 — an incident that Moggs mentions at the end, almost as an afterthought.

In other words, the mug shots are intriguing as historical artifacts but are even more interesting when viewed as portals into people's lives — just like the report cards that inspired Permanent Record. And just as the report cards led me to seek out and become acquainted with the descendants of the Manhattan Trade School students, Mogg has developed an intimacy with the people connected to his project. As he recently wrote:

Since I started researching and publishing the stories behind the mug shots on the Small Town Noir website, I’ve visited New Castle a couple of times, tracked down crime scenes, met relatives of the people I’ve written about — I’ve even attended the 95th birthday party of a man who had his mug shot taken at the age of seventeen, in 1935, when he was charged with stealing a car. (The return of his mug shot was my birthday gift to him.) Over those years, I’ve come to feel something like love for New Castle and the people whose lives I’ve tried to piece together.

That quote comes from an article Mogg wrote for a narrative history website called The Appendix. It provides the best overview of what he and Small Town Noir are about, including a good explanation of how he began collecting the mug shots, how they became available in the first place, and so on. I strongly recommend that you start there and then dig into Small Town Noir itself.

One additional detail worth mentioning: As longtime PermaRec readers are aware, I've written several times about lost class rings being found. So I laughed when I read this Small Town Noir entry about a 1945 mug shot, which includes the following passage about the arrestee:

By the 1970s ... Charles [the arrestee] was made foreman of the city’s sewers. In 1976, he was working in a sewer in Winter Avenue when he found a 1942 class ring inscribed with the initials MAS hanging on a broken tree branch. He called New Castle High, whose staff checked their records and told him that it must have belonged to Mary Agnes Schetrom. Charles’s friend, Frank Gagliardo, had been the Schetroms’ paper boy and still knew some friends of the family, who told Charles that Mary Agnes was living on Kenneth street. Two hours after he had found the ring, Charles returned it to Mary Agnes, who told him she had accidentally dropped it down her toilet in 1946 and had not expected to see it again.

The story of a lost class ring lurking within the story of a vintage mug shot — very meta, at least from a Permanent Record perspective.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paul - thanks for writing this! I can't believe I hadn't heard of your project before. Really fascinating stuff. I'm just off to read the Slate pieces and the rest of the blog - very much looking forward to it...