Doing Hard Time

Frank Dinsmore was sentenced to life at the Nebraska State Prison for the murder of his wife and neighbor Fred Laue. (NSHS RG2418.PH3741)

A little over a year ago, I was asked if I would like to curate a small temporary photograph exhibit that would be featured in a newly created space on the third floor of the Nebraska History Museum. Exhibits Coordinator Tina Koeppe gave me an open license to create an exhibit from the hundreds of thousands of images I care for as photograph curator at the Nebraska State Historical Society. I know that I have said it before in my blogs, but I really do have a very cool job and feel very privileged to get to do what I do. With that said, I have not curated an entire exhibit before and the thought of it was a bit daunting.

You might be asking yourself, “What does it take to curate an exhibit?” Well, let me tell you… It takes a lot of planning, careful research, painful selection, and a lot of printer cartridges.  I started my planning process by thinking about all the amazing photograph collections I have encountered in my three years as photograph curator. My idea list was about three pages long. I wanted to choose a topic that both surprised me and fascinated me. I figured if something made me say “Wow,” maybe our visitors would like it too.

Jake Vohland was a chicken thief who spent a year at the Nebraska State Prison in 1930s. (RG2418.PH11408)

So, what did I choose? Mug shots! We hold several thousand original glass plate negatives and photographs take of prisoners as they entered the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The earliest mug shots date from the 1860s and captured the faces of criminals of all types. Our very talented and incredible helpful Reference Room staff has helped hundreds of genealogist locate their family’s lost black sheep among the prison records. Often, the mug shots they find is the only photograph the family has ever seen of their notorious ancestor. What better way to share this unusual collection with our visitors but to create an exhibit from the interesting faces and fascinating stories found among the mug shots?

With so many amazing mug shots to choose from, selecting only 23 to be featured in the exhibit was very difficult. From chicken thieves to safe crackers, I found enticing story after story as I read through the prison records on microfilm in the Reference Room. Our Digital Imaging Lab created crisp, high resolution images from the

Goldie Williams strikes a defiant pose for her Omaha Police Court mug shot. (RG2339.PH228)

original glass plate negatives and prints that brought out the stark beauty of the mug shots. Tina’s fabulous exhibits team blew up the images bigger than life and installed the mug shots as if they were artistic portraits so popular among Hollywood actors rather than law enforcement identification tools.

I had a lot of fun putting together this exhibit. I would like to invite all our wonderful blog readers to please come visit the Nebraska History Museum and meet a few of my favorite criminals from Nebraska’s more notorious past. Remember the Nebraska History Museum is FREE, but we are always grateful for donations. Doing Hard Time: Historic Nebraska Mug Shots is open now, August 31, 2012 – February 13, 2013.

Also, check back on this blog over the next few weeks. I have a few more misbehaving criminals that I would like to introduce you to.

Until later!

Karen Keehr
Photograph Curator

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2 Responses to Doing Hard Time

  1. Cliff Davis says:

    I would love to see a mug shot of John W. Dwyer. He was sent to prison in December 1908. Please let me know if one is ever found. Thanks Cliff Davis

  2. Karen Keehr says:

    Mr. Davis, Our Reference Staff would be happy to help you with finding a mug shot of John W. Dwyer (like I said they are incredibly helpful). The mug shots are arranged by prisoner number. Unfortunately, we do not have a complete database with all the prisoner names. We do, however, have a searchable database on our website for the prisoner who appeared before the Nebraska Board of Pardons and Parole, http://www.nebraskahistory.org/databases/prisoners.shtml. It is not a complete list, but a great place to start your search. I found several listings for John Dwyer. From there, I suggest checking the microfilm of the Nebraska State Penitentiary prisoner index and the prisoner records. The prisoner records have very detailed descriptions of the prisoner including height, weight, tattoos, and even shoes and hat sizes. Once, you have the prisoner number, one of our photo reference staff can check to see if there is a mug shot. Please visit our website for the Reference Room hours. If you are unable to visit Lincoln, we can complete the research for you for a small fee.

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