Rare California inmate mug shot book brings $2,150

This “mug shot” book of California inmates is a fascinating and extremely rare piece of history. The volume likely dates from the 1880’s – one of the photos (A. Curte, inmate # 11783) shows a chalkboard in the background with the date August 6, 1885. The book has 40 pages, with most containing 18 mug shots, totaling 710 photos. Each photo is identified with a name, crime, and inmate number.

A pencil notation on the front flyleaf, which is marked on the inside cover as “No. 1” reads: “This ‘mug shot’ book belonged to the Bureau of Identification / S.F. Police Dept. Officer F.H. De Pue / circa 1908-1910.” De Pue was a strong proponent of using photography in police work. The San Francisco Police Department was one of the earliest users of photography in booking and identifying criminals, dating back to the time of daguerreotypes in the 1850’s. A number of ethnicities are included, a large number of Chinese men appear, many of them convicted on murder. This corresponds to the time period in San Francisco and elsewhere in California of major Tong Wars.

This volume represents a unique look at the criminal history of California in the 1880’s. It is in very good to excellent condition, which is astounding given its age and the amount of use it most likely had.

Measuring 9 1/2 inches by 11 3/4 inches, the book sold Oct. 11, 2011 for $2,150 during an ephemera sale held by Paige Auction of Portland, Ore. Photos courtesy Paige Auction.

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