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Mott Street. 1925.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Mafia kingpin Joe Masseria holds the ace of spades, "the death card," in his hand following his 1931 murder on the orders of infamous gangster "Lucky" Luciano in a Coney Island restaurant.
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1943Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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1916Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
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The brown 1968 Buick Skylark, belonging to Robert Violante, parked in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, New York City, where Violante and Stacy Moskowitz were shot by American serial killer, David Berkowitz (a.k.a. "Son of Sam"). Moskowitz died after the shooting, while Violante was partially blinded. 1977.NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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Murder scene outside an "amusement arcade" in downtown Brooklyn. 1959.Bettmann/Getty Images
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1933Tom Watson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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A crowd gathers around the body of John Masseria, Joe "The Boss" Masseria's brother, as police arrive at the murder scene on 19th Street. 1937. John Tresilian/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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1916Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
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Gangland murder on East 102nd Street. 1937. Bettmann/Getty Images
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1938NY Daily News via Getty Images
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Bullet holes line the back of the stage at the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. 1965.Stanley Wolfson/Wikimedia Commons
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Murder victim and gangster David Beadle, also known as "David the Beetle," in front of Spot Beer Tavern in Manhattan. 1939. Note Arthur "Weegee" Fellig to the right. Bettmann/Getty Images
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David Beadle's murder scene. 1939.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Watched by a curious crowd, a policeman straddles the body of a murder victim lying on the pavement outside a New York City bar. 1942.Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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1940Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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A police officer crouches under the rear end of a taxi jacked up on a crate and garbage can as the dead body of a man who was hit by the cab lies underneath. 1943.Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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Police examine the murder scene of infamous mafioso Albert Anastasia, gunned down in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton Hotel. 1957.George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Forensic detectives take the fingerprints of murdered store owner Joseph Gallichio, as he lies on the roof beside his cage of racing pigeons. 12 East 106th Street. 1941. Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
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View of a murder/suicide scene in Central Park. 1952.Bettmann/Getty Images
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George Silva, 19, lies on the steps of a rooming house, dead after inhaling heroin. 1954.Bettmann/Getty Images
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1957Al Aaronson/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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Crime scene rope stretched across intersection of Hester and Mulberry Streets in the Little Italy, blocking off Umberto's Clam House, where reputed mobster Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo was killed. 1972.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Mafia boss Paul Castellano lies dead after being killed in front of Sparks Steakhouse at 46th Street and Third Avenue. 1985. Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
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Body of hooker killed by serial killer Joel Rifkin and placed inside an oil drum is investigated by police. 1992.Ken Murray/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
You can't talk about New York City crime scene photography without talking about a guy known as "Weegee." The country's first successful freelance tabloid photographer, Arthur "Weegee" Fellig photographed hundreds of crime scenes in the post-Depression, post-Prohibition era in the Big Apple.
Why the name "Weegee"? One guess is his paranormal-like ability to get to a scene before the fuzz:
"His apparent sixth sense for crime often led him to a scene well ahead of the police. Observers likened this sense, actually derived from tuning his radio to the police frequency, to the Ouija board, the popular fortune-telling game. Spelling it phonetically, Fellig took Weegee as his professional name."
Or the nickname might have something to do with his humble origins:
"Weegee got his nickname from back when he was on the lowest rung of the photography lab: the squeegee boy, whose job was to dry the prints before bringing them to the newsroom."
Regardless of how he got the name, it's deeply ironic that such a playful-sounding figure was best known for capturing, in vivid black and white, photographs of fresh corpses strewn throughout New York.
Weegee's pioneering work is indeed still hard to look at today, and is far more gruesome than anything a 21st-century tabloid would run. But it wasn't artless. As David Gonzalez of The New York Times writes, Weegee eschewed the "just-the-facts approach of routine police crime scene photography" to capture "the details and drama, the humor and the horror, along the city’s streets."
The gallery above captures a number of Weegee's photos, along with some taken by other contemporaneous shutterbugs, in addition to crime scene photographs taken in New York City in the decades just after Weegee's grimy reign.
Is there aesthetic value in a collection so grisly? Author Tristan H. Kirvin, for one, writing about an exhibit of New York crime scene photos in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, says yes — with an asterisk:
"Another riddle, of course, is whether evidentiary, surveillance, or crime-scene photography is art. While there may be consensus regarding the positive artistic attributes of 'realistic' photography, the pictures ... do not largely evince an artist's touch. The poignancy residing in most of them is accidental."
If your curiosity is morbid enough, and your stomach is strong — judge for yourself.
Next, see some of the grisliest mob hits of decades past in New York and beyond. Then, see more of the most compelling photographs ever taken by Weegee.