Warning: Black-and-white photograph of a crime scene coming. I don’t find them gruesome, but I’m jaded. These will be shown as thumbnails to give you a chance to avoid them.
During the years of World War I, the New York Police Department experimented with crime scene photography, at a time when the cameras were big and bulky and established procedures for how to take them and what to do with them were rudimentary at best.
Not much is known about this experiment: how long it lasted, who was involved, not even how many photos were taken. They were stored at police headquarters at Centre Street, and then forgotten. During the early 1980s, when the building was being prepared for sale, workmen began clearing out rooms of records and files. The city archivists had been told, and they rushed over there, but by the time they arrived, the rooms had been cleared out. Their contents had been dumped into the East River.
Except one room, a Harry Potter like room under a staircase that had been overlooked by the efficient carters. There, they found 1,400 glass plates of crimes scenes that show an older, dirtier New York, and the people who lived at the time.
Luc Sante was shown these files while researching his book of vintage New York crime, “Low Life.” He was stunned by what he found. He published a book, “Evidence,” reproducing 55 of these photos, and in it he marveled over what he was shown.
Nothing in the reams of photographic documentation I’d sorted through — countless inert pictures of buildings, posed ranks of functionaries, fuzzy views of empty streets devoid of detail — had prepared me for this. Here was a true record of the texture and grain of a lost New York, laid bare by the circumstances of murder. Lives stopped by razor or bullet were frozen by a flash of powder, the lens according these lives their properties — their petticoats and button shoes and calendars and cuspidors and beer bottles and wallpaper.
The one thing missing from these photos were their stories. Many had confusing labels, or none at all. Sante did the best he could at the time with the resources at hand, and in “Evidence” recorded the litany of human misery and tragedy. The 19-year-old man who saw his brother shot dead. The man with the slit throat and 24 stab wounds (24!), stuffed in a barrel and left in a field for children to find. The unnamed man found dead in a tenement hallway, his back propped by a wall, his muscular arm uncoiled on the floor, one knee in the air, looking like a figure study in an Italian painting.
Most creepy are the pictures taken looking downward, using a camera mounted on a special tripod. The detail in these pictures are astounding — the subjects don’t have to be told to hold still — but the angle they’re photographed at makes them appear to be floating, or ascending, haloed by blood, their clothing opened in an attempt to locate the wounds or seek signs of life.
But equally important are the settings. These photographs, gruesome in places, also capture the cramped apartments of the poor, the pool halls where the city’s residents played and the blind tigers they drank themselves blind in. Some of the shots use a wide angle lens that capture details novelists would give their eyeteeth to acquire: the pictures on the walls, the hat hunt on the gas crossbar, the presence of oil lamps and clocks, the scattering of clothing and food.
As you can guess, I love this book. I mentioned it in passing while reviewing another book of crime photos. The historian in me loves to look back and see the detail of people’s lives, even if only to appreciate the clean, well-fed world I live in today.
Recently, the book resurfaced in my library, and while thumbing through it found the photo of a woman found dead in her apartment. Here’s the back-of-the-book description of the photo (click to embiggen):
”Homicide Roshinsky taken Chas. Abrams #1033 518 Fourth Avenue Astoria 2/15/16.” This is another case in which, in spite of a thorough caption, the trail leads nowhere. The scene possesses an unearthly stillness that is immediately belied by the victim’s right hand, which might be bloody or burned, and by the disarranged furniture. This latter aspect is puzzling: the small table is tipped over far from the body, and although both it and the mirror chest (which is on casters) are obviously out of their accustomed positions, there is no indication of where these two pieces might go. The chest could fit only in some part of the room behind the photographer, and it could not have been wheeled past the recumbent Ms. Roshinsky. These might, therefore, be signs of a struggle.
If it were not for these details, and the presence of the word “homicide” in the caption, one might be inclined to guess that the case was one of electrocution. There are headphones next to the body, and what might be a telegraph set just beyond it, along with an unnamable piece of equipment stuck beneath the small table along with what might be a carpet sweeper. What telegraph equipment might have been doing in a private apartment is anybody’s guess. The place is well furnished, but evidently minuscule, although the bed appears to have been rolled forward. In its normal position, there might be sufficient room to open the davenport.
When Sante wrote this in the mid-1990s, his research was limited to paging through newspapers at the New York Public Library. Sometimes he found a story, sometimes not.
Here’s how much things have changed since the arrival of the Internet. Armed with the same information, I headed to the Old Fulton NY Post Cards site. Plugging “Roshinsky” into the search box brought up the story of a maid, an 18-year-old boy and electrocution:
Note that Sante wouldn’t have been able to find this story based on the information he was given. This story was published on the front page of the Brooklyn Daily Star on Dec. 28, 1915. The cost to index newspapers by hand was prohibitive in those days, so he couldn’t have searched for the victim’s last name.
What’s even more interesting is that the website I was used was operated by one guy, Tom Tryniski, an amateur in the best sense of the word.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? For writers and researchers, this means that the tools are out there, slowly evolving and expanding, to do deeper and more accurate research than before. It means that some mysteries can be solved faster and easier. It also means that you have to know where to look and what questions to ask, but that’s always the case, isn’t it?
(Further links: The New York City Department of Records has a collection of crime scene photos, including the 1916-1920 era discussed above. These are Not Safe for Work (NSW), seriously. The bloated genitals photo will put you off your lunch for a week. Trust me.)