Vintage photographs are all the rage these days. Hell, vintage everything is big, it seems. There are some websites that do vintage images better than others. One site I stumbled accidentally across several years ago and which I have continued to visit on a regular basis is called Small Town Noir. It features old police mug shots from the former American industrial town of New Castle in Pennsylvania and the stories of behind them. What I like most about Small Town Noir is it’s just that. The person behind the site, a man called Diarmid Mogg, doesn’t post images of big time criminals in New York or Chicago. His subjects are ordinary people and he examines their hopes, dreams and frustrated plans, their small town crimes, and how these brought them to the attention of the police.
Now he’s trying to turn his website into a book and he needs people to pledge to buy it here. I reckon it’s a great idea and I’m going to support it. I thought other Pulp Curry readers might be interested in knowing more about Small Town Noir and when Diarmid asked whether I’d be prepared to help him publicise his project by doing an interview with him, I was more than happy to oblige. So read his tale, it’s a fascinating one about a worthy obsession, and think about supporting his book.
Tell a bit about yourself and the origins of your site, Small Town Noir?
You mean, how did a parliamentary reporter from Edinburgh, Scotland get so involved with historical crimes in a west-Pennsylvanian town?
I do a lot of printmaking and illustrating work. A few years ago, I was working on a series of mug shot artworks, using photographs from Mark Michaelson’s book of vintage American mug shots, Least Wanted. I would draw the criminals’ portraits and add little props connected with their crime—a pistol, a stolen chicken, a hip flask—and surround them with little devils carrying tokens of their sinful ideas. It was a whimsical project, but the pictures had a haunting power that I really loved. I soon decided that I should use mug shots that only I owned, rather than ones from a book, so that the images would be more unique.
The first batch of mug shots that I bought, on eBay, turned out to be from one particular town in Pennsylvania, called New Castle. They came with arrest cards detailing their names, dates of arrest, ages and the crimes they were charged with. I started researching their lives using old newspaper reports, and I ended up becoming much more interested in writing about them and the town where they lived than in drawing their pictures. I posted those mug shots and the first few pieces of research online, and that was the beginning of Small Town Noir, which has grown into something of an obsessive cataloguing of the lives and crimes of the ordinary people of an ordinary town.
There were more New Castle mug shots on eBay, all from the decades between 1930 and 1960, and I bought as many as I could. Over the years, I worked out that, sometime in the 1990s, the police department had cleared out its files and thrown hundreds—maybe thousands—of old photographs in the trash. The few hundred that had survived had been rescued by a police officer nearing retirement. At this point in my project, I’m staggered by the thought that, if he hadn’t happened to pick them up on his way out the door, as it were, none of what I’m doing would have happened, and the pictures and stories would have been lost forever.
The location that your mug shots come from, New Castle, Pennsylvania, is an important part of your site. Can you briefly tell us a bit about the town and its history?
New Castle is a troubled town. It sits midway between Lake Erie and Pittsburgh, over by the Ohio border. It was founded after the revolutionary war, in a valley that had been settled by the indigenous Lenape people, before they were forced out. Its growth was phenomenal. In the 1890s, its population increased by 144 per cent, faster than any other town in America. By the turn of the century, it was one of the most industrially productive cities in the country, with the biggest tinplate mill in the world and thousands of immigrants from Europe arriving every year to work in its steel factories, ceramics plants, foundries and paper mills.
All that’s gone now, of course. The great depression hit it hard, and the disastrous collapse of industry in the Northeast in the latter half of the century all but finished it off. Its present population is around 23,000, down from a wartime peak of nearly 50,000. You can imagine what the depopulated parts of town look like these days.
I’d say it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever come across, but I suspect the same is true of almost anywhere, if you decide to spend enough time finding out about it.
What is it that you like so much about old mug shots?
There’s a lot to love. First, some of them are absolutely beautiful portraits, even if you know nothing about the person’s life other than the fact that they were having a really bad day when their photograph was taken. That’s not the case with modern mug shots, which are usually just horrible, photographically speaking.
I’m also intrigued by the idea that, especially with the older ones, the mug shot that you’re looking at is probably the only picture that was ever taken of that person – an immigrant factory worker who was arrested in the 1930s for being drunk probably didn’t have a lot of disposable income to spend in portrait studios.
But the true fascination lies in the fact that an old mug shot is like the simplest, most basic form of crime fiction. A person—this person, who is staring directly into your eyes—did a bad thing, and they paid for it. Your imagination takes that as a starting point and runs with it, using whatever available facts about the arrest and the person’s life you might be able to find out.
Vintage images are all the rage these days. One of the things I’ve found most interesting about your site, and which continues to motivate me to visit it, is you don’t post image of big time criminals in New York or Chicago. Your subjects are ordinary people and you examine their hopes, dreams and desperation and frustrated plans and how these brought to the attention of the police. I take it this was a conscious decision?
Absolutely. I purposely shied away from people like Al Capone, Charles Manson and the other famous monsters of crime land, most of whom have pretty great-looking mug shots. Why bother adding more to the millions of words that have already been written about them? What could I add?
More than that, though, is the fact that I find ordinary people simply more interesting. What motivates a serial killer to commit a crime? Their psycopathy, which manifests in different ways. It’s always the same story, at its heart. But what motivates an ordinary person to commit a crime? Well, who knows? There are millions of possibilities—fear, selfishness, the desire to prove something to someone, the need to escape from a hopeless situation. Of course, to be honest, the motivation of a lot of the people in my mug shots was simply that they were drunk.
What have been the challenges of researching the stories behind the mug shots you post on the site? Have you ever had anyone contact you claiming to be connected to someone whose photo you have used on the site?
I rely to a huge extent on the archives of New Castle’s local paper, which did a great job of recording not only the arrests and court proceedings but also marriages, land transfers, social club appointments and, in the obituaries, fascinating family histories. The problem is, the record is pretty fragmentary and goings-on in town were reported in arbitrary manner. Someone’s arrest for public drunkenness might include a funny story, complete with quotes, while someone else’s seemingly more important arrest for breaking and entering or assault and battery might be entirely overlooked.
I’ve had dozens of relatives of people in the mug shots contact me. Almost all of them have been thrilled to come across the site. They’ve never seen the picture before, so it’s quite a treat to see it, especially if the person wasn’t arrested for anything particularly shameful. One man’s son got in touch to tell me his father had never mentioned his arrest for forgery, and that the first time he’d heard about it was when he read the story on my website. I wouldn’t say he was thrilled, but he was grateful for the respectful approach I’d taken, and he supplied a lot of really interesting details about his father’s later life, which I’ve included in my book.
How many mug shots have you published on the site? Do you have a favourite?
I think there must be about 200 stories on the site now. I’ve a few favourites, but one of the best is of Charles Esolda. He was a man who was described by the police as having the mental capacity of a child. He was arrested for pulling a false fire alarm. You can tell from the mug shot that he didn’t like the flash. You can also see that his mother had made sure that he was well turned out, with a little bow tie and a fashionable jacket. I also like that the police had lost the “s” from their sign and had to use an upside-down 5. And also that they spelled New Castle wrong.
Two years after the photograph was taken, Charles’s mother was murdered by her husband, Charles’s stepfather, who had gone insane. It’s an awful story.
Tell us about the project you are trying to get off the ground. I take it this is not your first attempt to get Small Town Noir published in book form?
I’ve always wanted to produce a book with the mug shots and the stories – a beautiful, hardcover volume that would really do justice to the people I’ve written about. Publishers have been encouraging about the idea, but have always passed on it, given how expensive photo books are to produce. They’ve never been convinced that enough people want to read a book of astonishingly depressing stories about people no one’s ever heard of who lived decades ago in a town no one cares about. I see their point, but I think they’re wrong!
I’ve teamed up with a publisher called Unbound to come up with a proposed outline for the book, which is exactly what I’d dreamed about: 150 full-page photographs on good paper, with 70,000 words of text; the pictures arranged chronologically from 1930 to 1960, so the passage of time is evident as you flick past changing hairstyles, fashions and types of photographic film stock; with the stories building up one after the other into a fractured portrait of a particular place and time that there’s really no other way to access. It’s going to be a great object to hold in your hands.
What is different about Unbound, the outfit you are trying to get the book out with now?
Unbound uses a sort of crowd funding model to ensure that there’s a market for the book before they begin the costly production process. Essentially, people pre-order the book and, when enough people have done so, the book is published. The pre-order phase ought to last a few months—we only need a few hundred more!
What do you want people to do and what will they get out of it?
I’d love everyone to pledge to buy the book! There are different pledge levels that feature various rewards, including a few beautiful old mug shots from my collection, some of which have quite fascinating stories behind them—a Californian dope smuggler, a Michigan bank robber, a Canadian murderer and a shady detective from Wisconsin.
Anyone who is interested in getting a copy of the book can go to http://unbound.co.uk/books/small-town-noir, where they can find out more.