WTF Fun Fact 13518 – History of the Mug Shot

The mug shot has always been relatively controversial. But do you know it’s interesting history? It all goes back to the history of photography itself, and it all starts in Belgium.

The History of the Mug Shot

The 1840s were a revolutionary period for the art of photography. While William Henry Harrison became the first US president to be captured in a photograph after his inauguration speech, it has been lost to time. Another iconic daguerreotype featuring John Quincy Adams, exists as the oldest known presidential photograph.

But enough about presidents. The point is that while photography was primarily aimed at capturing the nobility and prestige of the subjects, it would soon find an unlikely application in law enforcement.

The concept of the mugshot emerged in Belgium during the 1840s. The primary goal was simple: photograph prisoners to facilitate their identification if they ever re-offended post-release.

Recognizing the potential of this innovation, police forces globally began to toy with the idea of incorporating photography into their operations. Thus, the U.S. saw the birth of the rogues’ galleries, which showcased collections of criminals’ photographs and, at times, even made them public, urging citizens to remain vigilant.

Alphonse Bertillon and the Art of the Mug Shot

It wasn’t until the 1880s that mugshots became relatively standardized. Alphonse Bertillon, the chief of criminal identification for the Paris police, played a pivotal role in achieving this.

Bertillion introduced the concept of pairing two photographs: one frontal and one profile. Alongside these photos, physical descriptions and specific measurements, like ear or foot size, were documented. This compilation was termed a “portrait parlé”—a speaking image.

Bertillon’s vision was clear: even if criminals adopted disguises or aliases, their unique physical characteristics would betray them.

As a testament to his dedication, the New York City Police Department, in 1908, provided guidelines on correctly executing Bertillon’s method. This documentation even described how to handle uncooperative subjects during the mugshot process.

However, despite Bertillon’s contribution, his descriptive methods were soon overshadowed by the more efficient process of fingerprinting.

Yet, the mugshot itself was here to stay. It became an integral part of identification processes everywhere.

Mug Shots in Contemporary Culture

Today, mugshots serve multiple purposes for the alleged criminal themselves. In fact, for celebrities, these images can sometimes even enhance their mystique, further ingraining them in pop culture. Johnny Cash, for instance, turned one of his brief incarcerations into a song, and today, his mugshot-themed merchandise sells as a testament to his “rebel” image.

While some celebrity mugshots serve as tabloid fodder, others, in specific contexts, represent symbols of resistance. Notable figures from the civil rights movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., had their mugshots taken during their arrests. For them, these images were badges of honor, symbolizing their unyielding fight against systemic injustice.

Since its inception in 1840s Belgium, what started as a mere tool for identification now serves as both a mark of shame and a badge of honor. For some.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “A Brief History of the Mug Shot” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13080 – Errors in Hair Analysis

Crime scene analysis and the scientific investigation of crime scenes got a lot of attention once we started seeing them on television. More people than ever wanted to go into the field. But the science underlying some of these investigations is shaky at best. And in 2015, the FBI had to admit that at least one aspect of their crime scene analysis training was seriously flawed. Over 3000 cases needed to be rechecked for errors in hair analysis.

The Innocence Project

Sometimes we think the science on biological evidence left at a crime scene must be iron-clad or prove that a person was there. But that’s simply not the case.

In fact, it was the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) who jointly reported that:

“…the Department and the FBI are committed to ensuring that affected defendants are notified of past errors and that justice is done in every instance. The Department and the FBI also are committed to ensuring the accuracy of future hair analysis testimony, as well as the application of all disciplines of forensic science. The Department and FBI have devoted considerable resources to this effort and will continue to do so until all of the identified hair cases are addressed.”

Improving the science going forward

Of the past errors, the statement also revealed:

“These findings confirm that FBI microscopic hair analysts committed widespread, systematic error, grossly exaggerating the significance of their data under oath with the consequence of unfairly bolstering the prosecutions’ case,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “While the FBI and DOJ are to be commended for bringing these errors to light and notifying many of the people adversely affected, this epic miscarriage of justice calls for a rigorous review to determine how this started almost four decades ago and why it took so long to come to light. We also need lawmakers in Washington to step up and demand research and national standards to prevent the exaggeration of results in reports and in testimony by crime lab analysts.”

Sadly, many who were perhaps wrongfully convicted still had to wait for evidence to be reassessed.

“It will be many months before we can know how many people were wrongly convicted based on this flawed evidence, but it seems certain that there will be many whose liberty was deprived and lives destroyed by prosecutorial reliance on this flawed, albeit highly persuasive evidence. Just as we need lawmakers to prevent future systemic failures, we need courts to give those who were impacted by this evidence a second look at their convictions,” said Norman L. Reimer, Executor Director of NACDL.  WTF fun facts

Source: “FBI Testimony on Microscopic Hair Analysis Contained Errors in at Least 90 Percent of Cases in Ongoing Review” —

WTF Fun Fact 12999 – Nikka The Police Dog

The Vaughn, New Mexico Police Department has quite a recent history – and we just hope 2012 was the low point. That’s when the police chief and only officer were barred from carrying guns due to their criminal past. As a result, the only certified member of the force was Nikka the police dog.

Vaughn, NM goes to the dogs

In September 2012, the attorney for the town of Vaughn announced the resignation of Chief Ernest “Chris” Armijo.

News stories revealed that Armijo had been carrying a fake gun for months because he was not allowed to carry a real one. First, he was convicted of a felony back in Texas for owing tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent child support payments. But perhaps more concerning is that a few months prior he was also accused of illegally selling someone a police rifle and then keeping the cash for himself.

The town did not release the official reason for Armijo’s departure. But we have some good guesses about why the job didn’t work out for him.

There was another officer in Vaughn’s police force at the time. But he had just pled building to domestic violence charges that prevented him from having a gun. At the very least, CBS News (cited below) implied that if he was still part of the force, he was not a certified officer, and that would not only prevent him from carrying a gun but from making arrests as well.

According to records, that left only one certified member of the police force in good standing. Their drug-sniffing dog, Nikka.

Nikka the police dog gets a promotion

According to CBS News at the time: “Officials in the town of 450 people, about 100 miles east of Albuquerque, are considering whether to hire another police chief or keep the department staffed with just one officer...” It was unclear if the town would be able to keep the police dog since it was in Armijo’s care.

Residents said they were largely unconcerned because Vaughn had always been a quiet town with little crime.

It’s unclear how it all played out for the town or Nikka the police dog. Today the town is listed as having just one full-time sworn officer – and we’re going to assume it’s a human.  WTF fun facts

* Thanks to the reader who sent in this gem!

Source: “Nikka the police dog is only cop in N.M. town after chief resigns” — CBS News

WTF Fun Fact 12574 – John Hinckley Jr. Stalked Jimmy Carter

If the police had just looked at the journal sitting next to the guns would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. was trying to transport through the Nashville International Airport in 1980, they would have foiled his entire plot.

Of course, at the time, they had no idea Hinckley had plans to kill a U.S. president.

For those who don’t know the details, it didn’t matter much to Hinckley which president he shot. His only goal was to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster, who he had become obsessed with after seeing her in the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. The film also starred Robert DiNero as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet and taxi driver with plans to assassinate a senator.

Creepily, Foster (who starred as child prostitute Iris in the film) was only 12 years old during filming. But in 1980, she was a freshman at Yale, and Hinckley was sending her letters that went unanswered.

Not content to be ignored, Hinckley made plans to emulate Travis Bickle but made his target even bigger – the president.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter was president, but on the campaign trail for reelection and running against Ronald Reagan. It appears that Hinckley’s first plan was to assassinate Carter, and he got pretty close at least twice – once in Dayton, OH, and once in Nashville, TN. Both times he got close to the president, but it appeared to be more of a trial run to ensure his plan would work. However, he was certainly capable of carrying out the plan in Tennessee because he was armed.

Despite deciding against shooting President Carter in Nashville, Hinckley would regroup. A scare at the airport in which security found multiple weapons in his luggage didn’t deter him. Neither did getting hauled into the Metro Nashville Jail, but that’s likely because he was quickly released on a small bond and paid $62.50 in total for his transgression (at least, the one people knew about).

Today we know that Hinckley’s plans were laid out in a journal he also kept in his luggage right next to those guns the police found. But no one opened it.

Of course, the very next year he would go on to shoot President Reagan in Washington, right across from the Secret Service headquarters. Reagan lived, and Hinckley was captured, but he was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and handed over to a mental health institution. He was granted unconditional release in 2021. – WTF fun facts

Source: “Investigators Think Hinckley Stalked Carter” — The New York Times

WTF Fun Fact 12560 – The First Fingerprint Conviction

In 1910, Clarence Hiller confronted an intruder in his home, tackling him as both men fell down the stairs. Hiller was then shot, and the suspect ran away.

Paroled 6 weeks prior, Thomas Jennings was convicted of the crime. He was stopped by police when they saw he was wearing a bloody coat. But that wasn’t what got him convicted.

While investigating the scene of the break-in, police noticed that the intruder had grabbed a freshly-painted railing while boosting himself into the Hiller family’s window. They cut off the piece of the railing as evidence and presented it in court, comparing it to Jennings’ fingerprint.

Criminal justice scholars have proved that the way we use fingerprint evidence is not always in the best interests of justice, nor are fingerprints always accurately interpreted. In fact, our fingerprints even change over the course of our lifetimes, so an old fingerprint may rule out an actual criminal caught decades later.

But in 1910, this type of evidence was a first for a criminal case and the jury needed to be convinced that each person’s fingerprints are unique. Unfortunately for Jennings, that proof came from his defense attorney.

W.G Anderson rightly questioned the use of such poorly-understood evidence to convict a person, but it was his own fingerprint that would convince the jury of his client’s guilt.

Anderson challenged the forensic experts to lift his fingerprint from a piece of paper. They did. But his big plan was to solicit fingerprints from the general public to show just how shoddy the science of fingerprinting was. Alas, we do all have unique fingerprints and while there are often problems in our interpretations, this little experiment did nothing but convince the jury that fingerprint evidence was solid.

Of all the fingerprints collected, none looked like Anderson’s. The jury voted unanimously to convict Jennings, who was sentenced to hang.

In their coverage, The Decatur Herald noted that “the murderer of Hiller wrote his signature when he rested his hand upon the freshly painted railing at the Hiller home.” –  WTF fun fact

Source: “The First Criminal Trial That Used Fingerprints as Evidence” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 12415 – Santa Cash

David Wayne Oliver has a bit of a bank-robbing problem. In 2019, at age 65, he walked into a Colorado Springs bank claiming to be armed, stole an undisclosed amount of money, and then took the bag out to the street and tossed the cash in the air while shouting “Merry Christmas.” Interestingly, many passersby took the money right back into the bank.

Dubbed the “Santa Claus Bank Robber,” Oliver then sauntered over to a Starbucks where he watched the commotion and waited for his inevitable arrest.

But the story doesn’t end there. Oliver was armed in 2021 when he brandished a gun in a bank at another robbery in Teller County, Colorado. This time, he also led police on a car chase before his arrest.

During the 2021 chase, Oliver held his gun outside his car window, alerting the police that he was armed and was not going back to jail. During the chase, he tossed the gun but kept driving. Strangely enough, the deputies chasing him decided not to pursue.

He eventually turned himself in, but not before becoming the star of a viral Tik Tok video of the encounter. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “I’m an outlaw and a renegade, ok? The sheriff is down there, and they’ve got a roadblock looking for my a**. Get on the radio, you mister, get on your smartphone. I surrender to you boys; I’m not surrendering to the sheriff. I’m surrendering to the Honeycutt boys. I’m the Santa Clause bank robber from last year!”

Oliver was eventually charged with felonies, including menacing, vehicular eluding, possession of a weapon, and a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. His bond was set at $2,000. – WTF Fun Facts

Source: “Bearded man robs bank, gifts money, then yells ‘Merry Christmas'” — BBC News