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Unusual Suspects: Finding the Humanity in Vintage Mugshots

History books are full of the powerful, the rich, and the famous. When studying the past, we rarely get a good look into the lives of the everyday people of those eras. That’s what makes vintage mugshots so fascinating. No one is more powerless than the folks hauled into police stations as suspects. And the information recorded with those mugshots gives us an idea of how they were regarded. Mark Michaelson has been collecting vintage mugshots for decades. He’s the author of Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots, which has a collection of images, but is also a book on the history of mugshots. He tells us what kinds of mugshots he looks for on eBay.

My general idea was to avoid anyone famous or particularly violent or scary. Mugshots of famous gangsters and celebrities are popular, but I’m interested in something else—the small timers or the ones who fell through the cracks. When I was in Rome and saw the ruins, I wasn’t thinking about Caesar; I wanted to know about the guy who laid bricks in the Forum. What did he wear? Where did he go after work? Where did he live? What did he eat and drink?

I feel like an archaeologist trying to find and preserve these records of the common man, most of which are treated like trash and destroyed once they’re no longer in use. Over time, I accumulated an enormous cast of characters, and I called my collection the “least wanted.” Men and women. Young and old. Rich and poor. They’re so-called transvestites, communists, hop-heads, pimps, hookers, stooges, grifters, and goons. Punks, sneaks, mooks, and miscreants. Heartbreaking and hilarious.

Michaelson tells how mugshots came about and what those small images tell us about the people and the times they endured at Collectors Weekly.

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