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16 Police Mugshots Of Forgotten Murderers, Gamblers And Drunks Found On eBay

Small Town Noir is the history of a small American town pieced together through the lives and crimes of its citizens.

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Six years ago, Diarmid Mogg, a parliamentary reporter in Edinburgh, bought a set of six mugshots on eBay.

He bid on them for no other reason than he was interested in mugshots, the strange little portraits taken as a matter of routine by law enforcement agencies across America.

He said: "They're made haunting by the passage of time. I'm fascinated by the range of expressions, the haircuts, the clothes. Such faces. Who were they? What had they done? What were their lives like?"

When the photos arrived they still had their police file cards attached: name, age, crime, date and place of arrest. They ranged from the 1930s up to the 1960s, and they were from the same small town: New Castle, Pennsylvania, a place 80km northwest of Pittsburgh and one that Mogg had never heard of.

Mogg spent hours trawling through the online archive of the town's local paper trying to find the stories behind these people and their arrests. The result is Small Town Noir, a history of a town he had never been to, through the lives and crimes of the people who lived in it; a picture of the place before the streets emptied and these B-movie film noir types became pictures in an envelope in an eBay auction.

New Castle is near the Ohio border, founded after the Revolutionary War, and famously had a population that grew faster than any other town in the country. By the turn of the 20th century, it was one of the most industrially productive cities in America, with thousands of immigrants from Europe arriving every year to work in steel factories, ceramic plants, foundries, and paper mills.

But the Great Depression hit it hard and all that is gone now. Today it's just another town on the rust belt of industrial decline. Its population, at 23,000, is less than half of its wartime peak of nearly 50,000.

Any time Mogg found more New Castle mugshots on eBay, he would bid and win. The sellers were all over the world — San Francisco, Tokyo, even a small island off the coast of Scotland — so he made a point of asking them all how they originally came by the pictures.

The answer is usually other collectors.

Mogg gradually worked out that at some point in the 1990s, the police department of New Castle cleared out its files and threw hundreds, maybe thousands, of old photos in the trash.

A few hundred of them were yanked out of the bin by a police officer who was nearing retirement.

It was only by chance that the ones he happened to pick up were from the middle decades of the 20th century. Had he walked by earlier, he might have come away with some from the First World War. Any later and the bin might have been empty.

Mogg's collection grew year by year.

He said: "Each batch – still carrying the strong smell of the cigarettes smoked by New Castle detectives over the years – brought to light wonderful characters: a quarry worker who was arrested after losing his false teeth at a crime scene; a prohibition agent whose house was dynamited by bootleggers; an upstanding poultry fancier who turned bank robber; immigrant families; civil war veterans; local capitalists; and a lot of drunks."

Mogg even visited New Castle a couple of times in his research, tracked down some crime scenes, and spoke with relatives of the people he's written about.

"I've even attended the 95th birthday party of a man who had his mugshot taken at the age of 17, in 1935, when he was charged with stealing a car. (The return of his mugshot was my birthday gift to him.) Over those years, I've come to feel something like love for New Castle and the people whose lives I've tried to piece together."

"The subjects of the mug shots were, for the most part, largely innocent of wrong-doing, aside from an occasional error of judgment or alcohol-induced indiscretion."

"They were citizens of a town – perhaps a nation – that was unaware it was experiencing its golden age..."

"They worked in vast production lines. They shopped in crowded streets. They marched with their fraternal organisations to the music of faraway homelands. But they raised a generation of children who would grow up to find out that the place that had given their parents and grandparents everything they had in life was gone."

Frank Soda was married when he got a girl pregnant, then charged with adultery and bastardy on 5 March 1946 after he refused to support the child. He was jailed for an unrelated crime (burglary) before going to trial. He broke out of jail and disappeared.

"The steel mills have closed now, the downtown sidewalks are deserted. The men and women in these pictures saw things that none of us will ever see."

"All that we can do is look clearly at their faces, listen carefully to their stories and let them tell us what they can about their world, and what life was like in that long-gone town."

Those original six mugshots Mogg picked up on eBay evolved into an ongoing project called Small Town Noir. Mogg is crowdsourcing funds to turn it into a book, which you can support and pre-order on Unbound.co.uk.

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