These pictures from the archives of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney offer another side of women's history. They have been digitised, you can search the archive here. The crime photos span the first half of the 20th century, and include not only mugshots but crime scene pictures.
The portraits of these women are striking. Aside from suggesting that Henri Cartier-Bresson temped there for a while (seriously, stunning portraits), these pictures can tell us a lot more about the society these women lived in. The most obvious is dress: what they are wearing can show us typical attire of the time, in that city, for women of their social position. It might seem obvious that we have plenty of evidence for what people wore in the 1920s, but it's often selective. Newsreel quality limits the ability to pick out details of clothing, and the other evidence we have (theatrical films, fashion magazines, personal photographs, and vintage clothing) are all more likely to be representative of more affluent women.
It's also possible to see the same woman arrested on multiple occasions, and trace her appearance and criminal acts for several years. Each photo is accompanied by brief notes of the crime.
Kate Ellick, 17 February 1919. Age 59. Homeless and arrested for vagrancy, sentenced to three months in prison.
Nellie Cameron, 29 July 1930. Age 21. Reputed to be one of the most desirable prostitutes in the city. According to Lillian Armfield, Australia's first policewoman, Cameron had an 'assured poise that set her apart from all the other women of the Australian underworld'.
Isabella Higgs, 21 February 1924. Higgs was arrested in the company of Thomas Bernard Hooper (39), Harold George Hooper (34), Vera Crichton, (23), and Nancy Cowman (19), the others being charged with "conspiring together to procure a miscarriage" on Higgs. The women in the case were eventually put on good behaviour bonds. The Hooper brothers received gaol sentences of 12 and 18 months hard labour respectively.
This picture is one of a series of around 2500 "special photographs" taken by New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930. These "special photographs" were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of "men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension". Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, "the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed - perhaps invited - to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristics."
If you're interested in reading more about the policing of women and the use of identificational evidence, such as mug shots and fingerprints, read:
Julia A. Laite "Taking Nellie Johnson’s Fingerprints: Prostitutes and Legal Identity in Early Twentieth-Century London" History Workshop Journal - Issue 65, Spring 2008, pp. 96-116
Anyone who has attempted to trace women through archival history will know how easily they slip through the cracks. Name changes on marriage, vague census entries, can all conspire to make women (particularly low-status women) vanish altogether. These pictures are a fabulous example of the sources that are available, and kudos to the Historic Houses Trust of NSW for making them available online.