PETER DOYLE Crooks Like Us. Reviewed by Linda Funnell
Peter Doyle seeks to unlock the stories behind this extraordinary collection of police mug shots from the early 20th century.
Around 1910 the New South Wales Police began photographing some of the people who passed through Sydney’s Central and other inner-city police stations.
Peter Doyle has collected around 200 of the pictures here, and they present a remarkable and diverse slice of Sydney life. Doyle calls the photographs ‘informal mug shots’ and they are certainly a far cry from the expressionless police photographs we know today.
Some subjects are natty dressers, others are in their shirtsleeves, some appear to have no criminal record at all. Their expressions range from hard-eyed defiance to cool confidence, from resignation to the verge of tears.
Doyle sifted through boxes of negatives in the loft of the Justice and Police Museum, picking out those that were the most striking:
The selection was done hastily: crouching in the aisles, flipping through boxes and bundles of negs and holding one after the other up to the light, putting aside any that looked like keepers … a particular grin or scowl, an unusual pose, dramatic tonal qualities and so on. If I recognised the name or the face of an important underworld player, that too was put aside …. there was generally nothing on the photographs to indicate what crime, if any, the various subjects had committed.
It is a tribute to Doyle’s dogged research through the New South Wales Police Gazette and the New South Wales Police Criminal Register that he is able to give as much information as he does about particular individuals and their crimes.
Some photographs are striking, such as that of W Holland. Arrested in 1921 for inflicting ‘grievous bodily harm’ on a policeman, he has what appear to be bloodstains on his shirt and cuts on his face. Doyle correctly describes his expression as ‘insouciant’ and speculates that Holland came off better in the scrap.
Some of the group shots look like stills from an early 20th-century Ocean’s Eleven. In his sharp suit, his knee bent with his foot resting on his chair, T McDonald could be ready to launch into a dance routine. The smooth-shaven MGL Pusta, arrested in 1928, seems to have wandered out of The Great Gatsby with his three-piece suit, flat cap, and air of a young man-about-town. A number of the women are smartly dressed, some in furs.
It’s the candidness of these photographs that gives them so much power. You can’t help trying to imagine the lives these individuals lived before and after their appearance in the photographer’s frame. What could be the story of Miss Knight, a young woman photographed in 1918, who sits hunched forward in her chair with a defeated expression? The official records are silent.
There are many photographs for which there is no information. To fill the gaps, Doyle draws on his novelist’s skills (he is the author of four crime novels set in Sydney) and opens and closes the book with brief but plausible scenarios that could apply to the way any number of individuals may have found themselves before the photographer’s lens, and what may have happened to them afterwards. How many might have moved on from a life of crime? Changed their names, moved interstate, reinvented themselves?
The crimes range from pickpocketing and false pretences (for example, the man who impersonated a decorated war veteran to con money out of well-meaning patriots), to murder. There are hardened faces here that you definitely wouldn’t want to run across.
The stories Doyle can tell us are as varied as the photographs of the perpetrators. Some scams were elaborate, involving multiple collaborators; others, like those of the thief Ettie Benn, were solo operations: ‘when it came to ripping, running, jumping and climbing, [Ettie] was a genius.’ But not genius enough, however, to avoid arrest.
There are vicious career criminals, like Patrick Roache, whose crimes ranged from warehouse robberies to small-scale thuggery, including bashing a tram conductor for a pound or gate-crashing a party at Darlington and stealing two pounds from one of the guests. He was ‘a notorious gang member who openly defied police and routinely intimidated witnesses’.
‘English May’ Smith, pictured here in the large hat, ‘was a practitioner of the routine known as “old friend”’ — a pickpocketing scam. She would throw her arms around a wealthy-looking male target and shower him with kisses. As the target tried to compose himself, she would ‘relieve him of whatever was offering and quietly pass it to an accomplice’.
Doyle first went trawling through the archives of the Police and Justice Museum with Caleb Williams to produce City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912 – 1948, which included some mug shots but also numerous crime scene photographs, many with bodies in situ. Its black and white streetscapes and alleyways gave a strong sense of Sydney during the period.
By contrast, Crooks Like Us keeps its focus on the living, bringing together an endlessly fascinating collection of portraits. The photographs and the stories Doyle has been able to uncover provide a vivid glimpse into Sydney’s underworld.
Peter Doyle Crooks Like Us Historic Houses Trust NSW 2016 (first published 2009) PB 320pp $49.95
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.