In the 1930s, the photographer Weegee revolutionized photojournalism with his stark portraits of urban crime scenes, often shooting the aftermath of violent murders and horrific accidents before the authorities arrived. But what the public couldn't have known at the time was that the real innovations in photographic reportage had come the previous decades, and not from the press or even from fine art—but from police photographers, who combined the documentary possibilities of black-and-white exposure with another fledgling science: forensic pathology.
One hundred and fifty of these grisly photographs were recently unearthed during renovation of the building that once housed the NYPD's headquarters and are presented in Murder in the City, New York, 1910–1920 by Wilfried Kaute, published last month by Thomas Dunne Books. The resulting dossier of abandoned negatives (originally slated to be dumped into the Hudson Bay) brings together mug shots, press clippings, and panoramic views of the city in transition between tenement and skyscraper, carriage and automobile, the fall of the saloons and the rise of Prohibition.
Most of the victims were photographed twice: first in profile, among their personal effects and, second, from above, staring straight up at a camera that assumes the vantage of an impersonal archangel. These last photos are the book's highlight, each one a story. A woman pictured in an elegant hat is strangled to death at the Hotel Martinique on 32nd Street after taking a mysterious phone call. Two burglars lie interlocked at the bottom of an elevator shaft after fleeing a loft and falling five stories. An account of the murder of pugilist-turned-gangster Barney Solomon following a truce between strike breakers and the garment makers' union is paired with a 6.25 x 8.25 of a man—maybe Barney, maybe not—still clutching the balustrade of the storefront where he was gunned down.
The narratives—contemporary news reports, which frequently accompany the photographs—are usually more oblique. "Johnny Spanish Slain by Assassin," "Love for Child Betrays Him," "Cripple, 80, Kills to Avenge Mockery," "Police Hunt 300 Pound Female Who Robs Subway Riders," and my favorite, "Man Boasted of Being Jiu Jitsu Expert, It Is Said."
Here, the work Murder in the City most resembles is Félix Fénéon's ripped-from-the-headlines curio Novels in Three Lines, and, indeed, many of Kaute's visual micro-narratives chart milestones in the evolution of urban law enforcement—the reign of New York's "Ripper" copycat; the campaign of the Irish "Gopher Gang," who ruled Hell's Kitchen; the sensationalized search for the missing teen Henrietta Bulte (who turned up in LA, having decided to take off for Hollywood instead of a Harlem bank).
In the book's single most nightmarish image, a skeleton has been retrofitted with wax features in order to identify the slain party. There's also the haunting photographs of missing girls (just a few of the 700 reported missing in greater New York in 1917), as well as failed safecrackers, one of whom left his wife a succinct note reading, "Am in trouble. Goodbye." About halfway through the book, Kaute includes a handy 1915 criminal lexicon: a "cannon" is a pistol, a pickpocket is a "penny-weighter," and "Salt Creek" means the electric chair.
But more often, what we are faced with in these photographs is something independent of ceremony, specificity, or luster. It is death, viewed with the neutrality of a flashbulb, stripped to its most equalizing and random eventuality.
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Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions, the Culture Trip, the New York Times, and the New Republic.
Murder in the City, New York, 1910–1920 by Wilfried Kaute is available in bookstores and online from Thomas Dunne Books.