Daily Picture Show

Eerily Beautiful Mug Shots From 1920s Australia

Notice anything odd about this man?

1920s criminal mugshot
NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Widow Annie Birkett certainly didn't notice anything odd when she married Harry Leon Crawford, above, in 1914. So imagine her shock when "Harry" turned out to be a woman: Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing as a man since 1899.

Three years after their marriage, Birkett announced to a relative that she had discovered "something amazing about Harry." Shortly thereafter, she disappeared. Crawford (Falleni) told the neighbors that Birkett had run off with a plumber. Eventually, a charred body was found in a Sydney suburb and belatedly identified as Birkett's. According to the original caption (excerpted below), when Crawford's second's wife was finally convinced of Falleni's true gender, she remarked, "I always wondered why he was so painfully shy ..."

The photograph shown here shows Falleni in male clothing, probably on the day of her arrest. The negative was found in a paper sleeve inscribed "Falleni Man/Woman." It is also possible that Falleni was made to dress in a man's suit for the photograph.


Everything about this seems too classically noir to be true. But the photograph, and true story, is one of thousands captured by Sydney police between 1910 and 1930. The following mug shots come from the Forensic Photography Archive held at the Justice & Police Museum in Australia.

  • Hazel McGuinness was charged along with her mother Ada McGuiness with possession of cocaine (in substantial quantities). Police described a raid on the McGuinnesses' Darlinghurst house during which the mother Ada threw a hand bag containing packets of cocaine to her daughter, shouting, "Run Hazel!"
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    Hazel McGuinness was charged along with her mother Ada McGuiness with possession of cocaine (in substantial quantities). Police described a raid on the McGuinnesses' Darlinghurst house during which the mother Ada threw a hand bag containing packets of cocaine to her daughter, shouting, "Run Hazel!"
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • George Whitehall a carpenter, handed himself into the police after murdering his common-law wife, Ida Parker on Feb. 21 1922 at their home.
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    George Whitehall a carpenter, handed himself into the police after murdering his common-law wife, Ida Parker on Feb. 21 1922 at their home.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • A mug shot shows May Blake on Sept. 1, 1930, sentenced to 12 months in jail for posession of cocaine.
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    A mug shot shows May Blake on Sept. 1, 1930, sentenced to 12 months in jail for posession of cocaine.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Harry Williams was sentenced to 12 months of labor in March, 1929, for breaking, entering and stealing. In a 1930 entry in the New South Wales Criminal Register, he is described as a housebreaker and thief. ... Although he "consorts with prostitutes" and "frequents hotels and wine bars..." he is described as being of "quiet disposition."
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    Harry Williams was sentenced to 12 months of labor in March, 1929, for breaking, entering and stealing. In a 1930 entry in the New South Wales Criminal Register, he is described as a housebreaker and thief. ... Although he "consorts with prostitutes" and "frequents hotels and wine bars..." he is described as being of "quiet disposition."
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Clara Randall worked as a traveling saleswoman for a jewellery company. She reported to police that her flat had been broken into and a quantity of jewellery stolen. It was later discovered she had pawned the jewellery for cash. A career criminal, Randall was sentenced to 18 months with labor.
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    Clara Randall worked as a traveling saleswoman for a jewellery company. She reported to police that her flat had been broken into and a quantity of jewellery stolen. It was later discovered she had pawned the jewellery for cash. A career criminal, Randall was sentenced to 18 months with labor.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Many women, like Alice Sandford, capitalized on laws restricting the sale of alcohol after 6 pm by setting up "sly-grog shops:" premises in which alcohol was sold illegally at exorbitant prices. The details of Sandford's conviction have been lost. Charged with: selling liquor without a license.
    Hide caption
    Many women, like Alice Sandford, capitalized on laws restricting the sale of alcohol after 6 pm by setting up "sly-grog shops:" premises in which alcohol was sold illegally at exorbitant prices. The details of Sandford's conviction have been lost. Charged with: selling liquor without a license.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • When this photograph was taken in 1924, Alfred Fitch was a car thief. He appears later in the 1933 New South Wales Criminal, described as "an unscrupulous criminal, who will lend his hand to any unlawful undertaking, irrespective of its nature, and invariably assaults, or endeavours to assault, police effecting his arrest."
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    When this photograph was taken in 1924, Alfred Fitch was a car thief. He appears later in the 1933 New South Wales Criminal, described as "an unscrupulous criminal, who will lend his hand to any unlawful undertaking, irrespective of its nature, and invariably assaults, or endeavours to assault, police effecting his arrest."
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Philomena Best stole silk and other goods (valued at about $2000 today) from a Bourke shopkeeper. She was convicted and sentenced to 12 months with light labor.
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    Philomena Best stole silk and other goods (valued at about $2000 today) from a Bourke shopkeeper. She was convicted and sentenced to 12 months with light labor.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Leslie Louis Bernstein, Nov. 29, 1929.
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    Leslie Louis Bernstein, Nov. 29, 1929.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • May Foster worked with a male accomplice to break into numerous houses and steal the contents. She had previous convictions for vagrancy, failing to appear in court and receiving stolen goods. She was sentenced to six months with hard labour.
    Hide caption
    May Foster worked with a male accomplice to break into numerous houses and steal the contents. She had previous convictions for vagrancy, failing to appear in court and receiving stolen goods. She was sentenced to six months with hard labour.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Elizabeth Singleton had multiple convictions for soliciting and was described in police records as a "common prostitute." Charged with: soliciting, common prostitute and vagrancy.
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    Elizabeth Singleton had multiple convictions for soliciting and was described in police records as a "common prostitute." Charged with: soliciting, common prostitute and vagrancy.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • "Ah Num" and "Ah Tom," which may be approximate renderings of these men's names, do not turn up in the records of the time, and the expectation that they were to be released may account for their obviously elevated mood.
    Hide caption
    "Ah Num" and "Ah Tom," which may be approximate renderings of these men's names, do not turn up in the records of the time, and the expectation that they were to be released may account for their obviously elevated mood.
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW
  • Walter Smith is listed in the New South Wales Police Gazette in 1924 as "charged with breaking and entering the dwelling house of Edward Mulligan and stealing blinds," ... and with "stealing clothing in the dwelling house of Ernest Leslie Mortimer."
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    Walter Smith is listed in the New South Wales Police Gazette in 1924 as "charged with breaking and entering the dwelling house of Edward Mulligan and stealing blinds," ... and with "stealing clothing in the dwelling house of Ernest Leslie Mortimer."
    NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of NSW

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It goes without saying that these are not like today's mug shots. For one, because unlike today's criminals, many of these people had never before been photographed. Posing for a portrait was kind of a big deal.

There's also the medium: These mug shots are actually 4-by-6-inch glass plate negatives. (Think huge camera with black hood and accordion body.) Today that format is used by fine art photographers who appreciate its tonal depth, texture and balance, and also its moodiness. Back then, though, this was forensics.

Nancy Cowman, 19, and Vera Crichton, 23, are listed in the NSW Police Gazette in 1924 as charged, along with three others, with "conspiring together to procure a miscarriage" on a third woman.

hide captionNancy Cowman, 19, and Vera Crichton, 23, are listed in the NSW Police Gazette in 1924 as charged, along with three others, with "conspiring together to procure a miscarriage" on a third woman.

NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Novelist and curator Peter Doyle has spent a good two decades working with the collection. "It's kind of like photographic Pompeii," he says — an archaeological dig through crime scenes and other police-related ephemera. The mug shots, though, are a major highlight. "I've never seen photos like this," Doyle says, "particularly for that period of time, and that's the big mystery."

Mystery seems to be the word: Who was the photographer? And were they intending to be artful? Or sympathetic to the subjects? Why are some people smiling — ostensibly even proud? Little detail is known. In fact, when the photos were discovered in 1989, the only information that existed was scratched onto the image. Doyle spent years digging through police and court records and old newspaper files to match the names on the images with their stories.

Mug shot of Thomas Bede, Nov. 22, 1928, Central Police Station, Sydney. (On the image is says, "This man refused to open his eyes.")

hide captionMug shot of Thomas Bede, Nov. 22, 1928, Central Police Station, Sydney. (On the image is says, "This man refused to open his eyes.")

NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Together these faces show the seamy side of Sydney — or, as Australians call it, "Sin City." Jaded veterans were back from WWI, Doyle says, cocaine was rampant and a large percentage of the working class had immigrated from Great Britain. "Modernity swept through Sydney in the '20s," he says, which also shows in the clothing: Men were wearing three-piece suits and women were dressed to the nines in ready-to-wear outfits from department stores. It almost looks like something you'd see in a modern fashion spread.

And that, 90 years later, lends a strange nobility to Sydney's criminal class. Without knowing the dark story behind these mug shots, you might think they were just regular folks. Maybe that's why Doyle called his book Crooks Like Us. Except these people seem to know something we don't.


The captions to these photos were edited for clarity; Originals courtesy of NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses of NSW. A few of the photos in the slideshow were also researched by Nerida Campbell.

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