They’re All Ears: Folsom Prison Mugshots


Before the system of identifying individuals by fingerprint was developed, the authorities relied on the distinct, intricate hollows and folds of a person’s ear in order to positively link them to a crime. Lot 16 in tomorrow’s Photographs & Photobooks auction is an album from Folsom Prison brimming with criminals, with each man arranged into a three-quarters profile pose. From this angle, their ears are prominently positioned to allow for the eyes of the viewer to focus in on their identifying feature before being drawn to grave countenances, bold ID numbers, and then oftentimes down to sordid criminal histories inked on the page in flowing cursive script.

A captivating study on its own, this album is made even more so by the three binders of information that accompany it. Inspired by their children, who used to request to be shown the mugshot album as a special treat and would make up scary stories to accompany the macabre faces within, the collectors tapped into a strong background as professional researchers and unearthed articles detailing the nature of the crimes for the majority of the men included in this rogue’s gallery. 

The binders are stuffed with copies of original newspaper clippings with drawings and photo reproductions, as well as transcriptions of the articles. The majority of the articles are from West Coast sources, but some men were committing their crimes as far east as Chicago. The articles detail the specifics of the crimes and, at times, follow the perpetrator’s background history all the way to trial and onward. Many different writing styles are employed, juxtaposing the terse, formal accounts with the more dramatic and splashy tales.

This album is a remarkable piece of criminal history, but the massive amount of research and information included puts it on a much higher level. It is very uncommon to find the backstories of the men pictured within, and unheard of to have this information for nearly every single inmate.

Thanks to Alex Van Clief of our Photography Department for this post.