55 Vintage Mugshots That Prove They Don’t Make Female Criminals Like They Used To

Published February 27, 2018
Updated July 15, 2020

These women, charged with everything from theft to murder, are anything but prim and proper — and will still chill you to the bone a century later.

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Jennie Lester Mugshot
Smiling Woman
Edith Towell Mugshot
55 Vintage Mugshots That Prove They Don’t Make Female Criminals Like They Used To
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They range from fresh-faced teenagers to hardened old women who have lived through hell. Their appearances range from dirty and disheveled to Sunday best. And the charges leveled against them range from petty theft to murder and dismemberment.

But as diverse as these vintage mugshots of accused female criminals are, all of these photos paint a different image of how we so often imagine ladies of the early 1900s: prim and proper. There were, of course, rough-and-tumble criminals back then just as there are today. And the mugshots above are certainly a testament to that.

The Origins Of Mugshots

Rogues Gallery

Corbis via Getty ImagesA police officer takes a mugshot of a suspect at New York Police Headquarters in 1908.

What's more, these mugshots reveal how little has changed over the course of the mugshot's long history, which dates back almost as far as the beginning of photography itself.

During the 1840s, when it was still a new technology, police departments displayed daguerreotype portraits of potential "rogues" or suspects. The nature of long-exposure photography meant that often several people needed to hold down the suspects in order to get the photo.

The department then displayed the likenesses so that the patrolmen could familiarize themselves with the suspects.

In 1886, New York Police Chief Thomas Byrne published Professional Criminals of America, a book that grouped hundreds of mugshots from all over the country.

Loyes Langdoff Mugshot

Angus Mcdiarmid/FlickrLoyes Langdoff, 42, arrested on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct on March 2, 1940.

"There cannot be the slightest doubt but that it will prove an important medium in the prevention and detection of crime," court officer Frederick Smyth wrote in the book's introduction.

In 1888, Alphonse Bertillon created the modern mugshot, which included two images: one in profile and one from the front. This practice also involved specific body measurements and together the technique constituted the "Bertillon System." Bertillon's system appeared at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and spread like wildfire to the biggest cities in America.

Taken not long after that point, the vintage mugshots of female criminals above provide a fascinating look at how these types of photos looked more than a century ago.

The Incarceration Of Women

Woman In Prison Cell

Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesMitzi Downs smokes in a Long Island jail for refusing to testify against her husband, who was accused of murder in 1932.

During the early 19th century, women being jailed was still rare, which meant few institutions had exclusive quarters for women like they do now.

In New York's Auburn Prison, which pioneered the individual cell-style of modern incarceration, the men were held in separate cells at night and endured silent labor during the day. The women, meanwhile, were placed in an attic and excluded from regular exercise and work.

The neglect of women prisoners led to horrendous living conditions, more so than the men. As one chaplain at Auburn Prison wrote, "To be a male convict in this prison would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death."

Ingrained sexism of the time portrayed women prisoners as great sinners who were impossible to reform. They had violated the traditional rules of womanhood, which made them worse than male criminals and, therefore, unworthy of dignified treatment.

At New York's Mount Pleasant Female Prison — the first in the country — inmates were kept in overcrowded and unlivable conditions. They were routinely abused with gagging and straitjackets.

Happy Mugshot

Mark Michaelson/FlickrRare happy mugshot of an unidentified woman booked in 1945.

The idea of irreversible moral depravity of women prisoners persisted into the 20th century. Prisons used bizarre reform tactics based on antiquated notions of gender. The Reformatory Prison for Women of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, used the bond between women and their children as a "natural incentive" for reformation.

Instead of the manual labor tasks that male prisoners were typically subjected to, female inmates were expected to perform domestic chores like sewing and cooking in the hopes that re-familiarizing them with womanly household duties would somehow negate their criminal tendencies.

The Most Notorious Women Criminals

Elizabeth Zuiti

Vancouver Police Department/Washington State Digital ArchivesElizabeth Zuisti, 22, was arrested in 1918 for vagrancy.

Just like their male counterparts, female criminals have been locked up for all kinds of bizarre crimes — from joy riding and vandalism to robbery and murder.

According to Tori Telfer, who wrote the book Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History, she believes that the most gutsy of them all is murder by poison.

"You need to look into your victim's trusting eyes day after day as you slowly snuff out their life," she states. "You have to play the role of nurse or parent or lover while you sustain your murderous intent at a pitch that would be unbearable for many of those who've shot a gun or swung a sword. You've got to mop up your victim's vomit and act sympathetic when they beg for water."

Lizzie Borden was perhaps considered one of the first famous female suspects of the 19th century. She made headlines in 1892 after her parents' bodies were found brutally slain in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden was arrested and tried for the double homicide but later acquitted. Nevertheless, many suspected that it was indeed Borden who had done it.

In the 20th century, Laura Belle Devlin was one of the most infamous female faces seen on mugshots. She was arrested in 1947 after she murdered and dismembered her 75-year-old husband with a hacksaw, throwing some of his body parts in the stove and the rest in their backyard in Newark, Ohio.

Margaret Kerrigan Mugshot

Greater Manchester Police/FlickrMargaret Kerrigan was arrested by Manchester police in England for stealing clothes in 1908.

Devlin was cooperative during police questioning, admitting that she had beaten her husband after he threw a dish at her. She initially refused to take off her stocking cap for her mugshot as her "hair was a mess."

Borden's infamy is partially exacerbated by the common myth at the time that women weren't capable of killing. And so when they did, it sent shockwaves amid the public more so than murders committed by men.

In earlier centuries, women were most likely to be reprimanded for infractions related to moral depravity, like prostitution or adultery. As attitudes toward male and female criminals have shifted in the 21st century, women with horrendous criminal records have become less of a surprise to society.

Take serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who began murdering and robbing her male clients. Her gruesome rampage struck a nerve so deep that her story was adapted into the 2003 film Monster.

Wuornos was eventually arrested and given the death penalty by execution in 2002. Her only request? That her last meal be a simple black cup of coffee.

Next, see some of the most iconic mugshots of famous people throughout history. Then, read up on some of the most fearsome female gangsters of all time.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Kelly, Erin. "55 Vintage Mugshots That Prove They Don’t Make Female Criminals Like They Used To." AllThatsInteresting.com, February 27, 2018, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-female-mugshots. Accessed May 26, 2024.