Last week we reached out for help understanding a photograph, and wow, did we get it. Our photo from the Hughes Company collection traveled far and wide. The image, known then as “Detective room, Police Department,” was not only a headscratcher, but also a Rorschach Test of sorts. Different eyes saw different things happening. Speculations, observations, and facts, sent via e-mail and comments, ranged from thinking it was initiation ritual to a theatrical production still. The majority who weighed in felt that what’s depictied is a police line-up. Within less than two day’s time enough evidence mounted to reasonably argue that it is a police line-up. Whether or not it was staged or the real thing is one of the few questions left unanswered.
We now know to call this photo “‘The White Masks’ Inspecting a Prisoner at Detectives Headquarters.” The first info to arrive came from Bill Zorzi, a former Baltimore Sun editor and writer/producer/actor of The Wire. In an early afternoon e-mail to this writer he wrote:
“At first I thought it looked as if it might be a courtroom—which they used to have in the old police station houses—given the paneling and the brass bar. Then I counted the masked men, which totaled 15—too big for a jury (even with alternates) and too small for a grand jury. Then I thought, hmmm, I bet this is the forerunner of the ol’ police lineup… before 2-way mirrors…”
Zorzi followed his e-mail with another containing ten articles from The Sun. But before his second transmission arrived, commenter Bill Lefurgy, archivist/digital preservationist at the Library of Congress, quoted a Sun entry titled “Sleuths Have Mask System: First Prisoner Subject to Ordeal Turns Pale,” from July 29, 1908:
“…the Baltimore Detective Department initiated a ‘mask system’ that ‘enables detectives to examine crooks without being recognized.’ The description is of masks ‘of the ordinary white dominoes with white muslin covering the lower part of the face,’ worn by 20 detectives; the detective captain is described as unmasked….”
The article details how a young pickpocket, Hymen Movitz (18 years old) faced 20 masked detectives, turned pale, and clutched at the brass rail in our photo. Now we know when the practice was first implemented in Baltimore. Our photograph was taken after July 1908.
Several articles in the historic Baltimore Sun (accessible for free via ProQuest if you have a Pratt Library account) detail the story behind our photo. The paper has since posted some images of these articles on their DarkRoom blog. Sherlock Swann, whose collected papers are available at the MdHS Special Collections Department, was appointed president of the Police Board in 1908. Well known and highly regarded for his tenure as the Burnt District Commissioner after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, Swann is apparently the first head of police to actually put serious effort into the job.
In March 1908, Swann traveled to New York City to school himself on the operations of a big city police department. One of the many practices he brought back with him was a ritual known as the “facing of the masks.” This practice was developed by Inspector Byrnes of New York in the mid-1880s. It was presumably a preventative measure. Masks were employed on the speculation that some career-minded criminals might have themselves arrested simply to learn the faces of detectives, thus adding to their skills and value.
In what seems a rather intimidating practice, police would parade detainees about to be released due to lack of evidence before detectives wearing the white masks seen above. It was all part of the daily morning routine. In New York the practice was done on a much larger scale involving up to 100 detectives. Officially, the line-up was held so that detectives could learn the features and mannerisms of individuals who would surely be passing through their doors again and again. However, one can’t help but speculate this was as much as a shaming/intimidating ritual as a useful law enforcement practice, especially considering that a photography department existed even at Baltimore’s small Bertillon Bureau. Each arrestee had already had his picture taken for the “Rogue’s Gallery.”
By 1911, the NYPD had abandoned the masked line-up for being time consuming and wasteful of the detectives’ time.* These factors didn’t stop the Baltimore police from using it for many years.
The most definitive piece of evidence we received was sent in by Jeff Korman of the Maryland Department at the Enoch Pratt Library. He identified the photo from a book in the Pratt’s collection, History of the Baltimore Police Department, 1774-1909 by Clinton McCabe. The photo, Korman said, appeared on page xvii. This came as quite a surprise to me, as the MdHS library has an earlier edition of the book without the photo. (HBPD 1774-1907)
The following day I went to the Pratt and met with Korman. He showed me the five different editions from their holdings, earlier ones like ours without the photo and later editions with the detectives faces obscured by a gilt stamp to protect their identities. We are now able to identify two of the three unmasked men. The moustached man on the far left is Detective Joseph E. Coughlan. Two spaces down and slightly turned to his left is Sergeant, Detective Harry P. Schanberger. They’re probably not wearing masks because they were the brass of the department and did not have to do undercover work.
All the information above dates our picture between 1908-09. It’s the only photo of its kind in our Hughes Collection. We may never know the identity of the African-American man on the riser. We may never know if he was arrested or if this was a staged demonstration for a photographer. But we have heard from enough voices who agree that this image is at once disturbing, perplexing, and stunning. It speaks volumes about our recent past.
MdHS would like to thank everyone who shared the photo, sent comments, clues, and criticisms, and enjoyed helping. (Joe Tropea)
*A New York Times piece from Feb. 9, 1914, “Police Line-up Is Resumed Today” details the discontinuation of the practice before it was reinstated in a modified form—less detectives—some three years later.
Sources and further reading:
The Baltimore Sun
“Colonel Swann ‘At School,'” Mar. 14, 1908: 14; “Col. Swann Returns,” Mar. 16, 1908: 7; “Must ‘Face the Masks,'” May 6, 1908: 12; “Sleuths Have Mask System,” July 29, 1908: 12; “Police Use Spotlight,” July 31, 1908: 12; “His Record on Police Board,” Apr. 21, 1910: 14; “Line-up of Crooks Stopped,” Aug. 13, 1911: 2; “Alleged Thief Silent,” Dec. 7, 1913: 7.
McCabe, Clinton, History of the Baltimore Police Department, 1774-1909 available at MdHS and the Enoch Pratt libraries.
Last month we solved a longstanding photograph mystery that we never expected to solve, that is until we rolled up our sleeves and actually tried. Modern digitization technology, more precisely the ability to zoom deep into a photo or negative to see details previously unavailable to the naked eye, coupled with searchable newspaper databases make solving these puzzles much easier today. But this time out, we have a longstanding photo mystery that we can’t solve on our own. Having exhausted every resource we could muster, from searching historic newspaper databases to asking historians and journalists (we even tried asking federal archival investigators who visited us during the Landau theft case), we still can’t say with any degree of certainty what’s going on in the disturbing photo above. Yet its imagery evokes such strong feelings, conjuring up images of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynching, we can’t give up trying to understand it—so we turn to crowd sourcing.
Immediately several questions come to mind: What is happening to this man? Why are the men wearing masks? Are they police officers? Are they a jury? Stare a little longer and other questions arise: What year would this be? Why are two of the men seen above not wearing masks? Why does the African-American man seem so calm?
Here’s what we do know
This photo is labeled “Detective room, Police Department.” However, in the archival world, you quickly learn not to take random descriptions as gospel. It’s part of the Hughes Collection*, one of our largest collections of photographs. James F. Hughes, whose first appearance as a commercial photographer in the City Directory was in 1877, founded the company. He owned the company until his widow sold it to an employee, James W. Scott, in 1903. The Hughes Company primarily did work for Baltimore area businesses, corporations, governmental agencies, and occasionally private individuals.
MdHS’s records indicate that this photo was taken sometime around 1910. Several pieces of evidence corroborate this date. From the lighting fixtures to the suits and hats the men are wearing, this appears to be the early twentieth century, pre-WWI. Additionally, the original medium for the image is an 8 x 10 inch glass plate negative. Glass negatives preceded film negatives. They first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, but went the way of the dinosaur in the early twentieth century as less fragile celluloid film was introduced. The one item that could answer the “when” question is just a bit too out of focus to help: a newspaper left on a table and opened to an advertisement page:
Given the approximate date of the photograph, we can safely assume that James Scott, or someone who worked for him after he took over the Hughes Company, took the picture. We know that the company commonly did work for the City of Baltimore. What we don’t know is why a Hughes photographer was at this location on this particular day. There’s also the matter that this room looks far more like a courtroom than a police detective room. Was the photographer there to take promotional pictures for the police department or court system? The shot seems somewhat staged, as if the men were assembled quickly for the shot. Note that three of them are not wearing masks, two on the left and one on the right in a doorway. Anonymity was not crucial for all of the men in the picture. There are fifteen men wearing the very distinctive masks. Could this be a jury with three alternates? Are they witnesses? A staged demonstration might also explain the calm look of the man on the riser. It’s also worth noting that he’s a fairly handsome man and zooming in closeup reveals no sweat on his brow. Additionally he appears to be wearing a wedding ring. What does any of this mean?
One final clue to point out: If this is a detective room or a court room, how do we explain the object behind the head of the man to the right of the man on the riser? What little we can read of it says, WM. J. C. DULANY CO. PUBLISHERS. Is it a calendar or broadside? The photo vexes us at every turn.
One prominent local historian** suggested that this image represents an initiation ritual for the first black detective of the Baltimore City police force. This seemed a reasonable guess, except that the date range of the collection is 1910-1926. Considering that glass negatives were not used much after the nineteen-teens and that we had never heard of an African-American detective in segregated Baltimore this early, we were left wondering.
The theory was quickly taken down by a veteran journalist who visits the library frequently. “There were no black officers on the force until 1937. Violet Hill Whyte was the first one,” said our source. “African-Americans weren’t even put into uniform until 1943,” he added. The first African-American men hired by the Baltimore Police arrived in 1938. They were Walter T. Eubanks Jr., Harry S. Scott, Milton Gardner, and J. Hiram Butler Jr. These men were not allowed to wear police uniforms for another five years. Even if this were a photo from as late as 1926, which is highly unlikely, it predates the arrival of African-Americans on the force by twelve years.
Left with more questions than answers, we turn to you, our readers. What do you think?
Please share this, leave comments, or send us an e-mail. (Joe Tropea)