Presently, the display in our table (Opening the Books, In the Table/ On the Wall) is part of a collection of criminal cards that I bought at an antique store not far from our house. These were discarded by the Chicago Police Department and have mug shots and data from persons arrested in the late 19th century and early 20th.
These cards are incredibly provocative. The photos themselves evoke story and mystery. I find myself staring at their faces, their clothes, imagining their lives, musing on the details of their crimes. I look at the addresses and try to picture those neighborhoods, the victims. I work to flesh out the narratives based on the skeletal information provided.
On the front of the cards are places to record a great deal of data: head length, head width, length of foot, length of midfoot, height of trunk, shape and dimensions of nose, etc. Perhaps this data, in the absence of DNA, was useful in identifying people. But in actuality, this data was also connected with the belief that such measurements had to do with whether one had a proclivity for criminal behavior. Phrenology and its relationship to eugenics embraced the notion that one’s physical attributes could clearly be tied into one’s character traits. These false sciences “proved” racial and ethnic stereotypes by claiming that the darker one’s skin the more inclined one might be toward criminal behavior, the larger one’s nose the more one had a tendency toward greed and avarice.
There is also a space on the front to list the person’s nativity. This is a telling entry because 80-85% of Chicagoans at the turn of the century came from someplace else. 900,000 of these people were born in foreign countries. In 1833 when Chicago was first incorporated, its population was 300. By the turn of the century, its population had grown to 1.7 million. In a single person’s lifetime it had changed from a backwater swamp to the second largest city in the United States and the 5th largest in the world. It is suggestive to consider why nativity was more important on these criminal cards than status of citizenship or length of time in country.
On the back of the cards, details of residency and the crime, along with arresting officers was kept. There was also a place to record further descriptions and also any dispositions of the case. On many of the cards I have, the crime is listed as G.P. (see back of Nicky Arnstein’s card). I have done some research on this abbreviation but I haven’t been able to discover what this stands for. Even law enforcement people I have ask are puzzled. (Any clues would be appreciated.)
Purely by accident, one of the cards I have is of a relatively well-known person, Nicky Arnstein. He was married to Fanny Brice, famous comedienne, broadway stage actress (Ziegfeld Follies), and singer. For those of you who have seen Funny Girl (biopic of Fanny Brice) with Barbra Streisand, you can clearly detect that Nicky Arnstein is no Omar Shariff. At the time of his Chicago arrest noted below, Arnstein had already served three years in Leavenworth for a Wall Street bond theft. Note the G.P. on the back of his card.
For added drama in the table, we have placed a pair of brass knuckles given to JB some 40 years ago, by an older woman who had gotten them from the security guard at a bank where she worked as protection for her walk home. A switchblade we confiscated from our son ten years ago and various bullet casings from the neighborhood accompany the collection of cards.