Saturday, September 21, 2013

City of Shadows

Readers who live in Sydney may be interested in an exhibition that is currently on at the Justice and Police Museum at Cnr Albert and Phillip Streets, Circular Quay, Sydney (Saturdays and Sundays, 10.00am-5.00pm) until 30 June 2014. The exhibition is called City of Shadows.

Even apart from the above exhibition the Police and Justice Museum is worth a visit in its own right. A magnificent sandstone building that once housed courts, police and cells, all of which are able to be viewed, it today has displays looking at the social history of law, policing and crime in NSW. This includes displays of underworld weapons – firearms, knuckledusters, maces, sword canes etc – and a collection of murder weapons.

City of Shadows was on at the Museum some years ago and Kate and I were fascinated by it then. When it was put back on we decided to have another look, which we did last weekend with son Thomas, and it was as interesting as the first visit. 

The exhibition is a display of selected police forensic photographs 1912-1948 with commentaries thereon, but that description does not do it justice.

Back in the late 1980’s four tons of forensic plate glass negatives taken by policemen in the early part of the twentieth century were salvaged from a flooded warehouse. The negatives, about 100,000 in number, are of criminals, crime scenes and accidents, but the accompanying paper records were destroyed in the flooding. 

That discovery resulted in the preservation of the negatives at a time when most cities and states had destroyed such archived items. Through the use of police criminal records and the Police Gazette, newspaper accounts and oral histories, it has been possible to ascertain some identities and backgrounds but the larger part still remains anonymous. This only adds to the fascination. who were they?  What had they done?  How bad were they?

Another interesting thing to note is that when people think of “mug shots” they commonly think of front on and side photographs of a person behind a numbered sign, such as the infamous Hugh Grant and Jane Fonda pics:

Unlike their American counterparts, however, the Sydney photographers showed full body shots in various poses as well as face and upper body shots. Using natural light in the watch house yard, the subjects are depicted with and without hats, smiling, frowning... the photographers appear to have sought out personality and character as well as simply physical appearance. Many of the photographs are first class portraiture and, as observed by compiler Peter Doyle, “the view of the subjects is surprisingly benign. There is an unexpected sympathy, even tenderness, in many of the photographs.”

Photographs of crime scenes in some cases are stark and gritty, in other cases witty, humorous, sometimes even surreal, as in this example:

The people depicted are varied, some appear fragile, others hard and frightening; some are well dressed and some are down and out.

The photographs have been selected by crime writer Peter Doyle, who also provides the commentary in the film that is part of the exhibition. Here is his commentary on the exhibition from the Police and Justice Museum website:

In the early part of the 20th century police routinely went to the places that respectable Sydney did its best to avoid, the dark places where bad things happened. They were just doing their job – asking questions, taking photographs, writing reports. But now, nearly a century later, the fruit of that footwork offers us the most extraordinary and intimate record of the more troubled sides of everyday life in early 20th century Sydney. 
Then, most of the action took place in a crescent zone of jumbled streets, terrace houses, factories and warehouses running from Balmain through Pyrmont, Glebe, Annandale, Newtown, Redfern, Chippendale, the Haymarket, Surry Hills, all the way round to Darlinghurst, Paddington, Kings Cross and Woolloomooloo in the east. Taxi drivers used to call it ‘The Horseshoe’. It was where the population was most dense, where most business was conducted, where out-of-towners most often washed up, and where Sydney-siders went for their illicit pleasures.
‘The Horseshoe’ received consistently bad press; scandal sheets of the day titillated respectable Sydney with tales of prostitution, thuggery, drugs, gambling, gender-bending and illicit carousing. Much of it was tabloid hype, but it was not only that. The police-eyes only publication the NSW Criminal Register routinely detailed the habits and haunts of hundreds of criminals during the period, and the billiard saloons, dance-halls, wine bars, hotels and brothels – the ’traps’ – in the Darlinghurst, Newtown, Redfern and Haymarket areas recur overwhelmingly in these reports.
According to Doyle, the exhibition maps “in great particularity the shadowy sides of everyday life – the mayhem, villainy, and plain bad luck – in the old Sydney Horseshoe.”

In the next week I will post some of those photographs in various groups.

Today: Men (with details where known)

(One interesting feature is that the handwritten notations on the photographs sometimes appear a little wonky. This is because they had to be written on the back of the plate glass negatives in mirror writing).

Special Photograph no. D158/D159. The ‘D’ prefix on the serial number indicates that the photograph was taken on behalf of the Drug Bureau, which in the late 1920s consisted of two men, Detectives Wickham and Thompson. ‘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.

Special Photograph no. 745. Joseph Messenger and Valerie Lowe were arrested in 1921 for breaking into an army warehouse and stealing boots and overcoats to the value of 29 pounds 3 shillings. The following year, when this photograph was taken, they were charged with breaking and entering a dwelling. Those charges were eventually dropped but they were arrested again later that year for stealing a saddle and bridle from Rosebery Racecourse. As an adult Messenger was active in inner-Sydney underworld through the 1920s, and he appears in the NSW Criminal Register (16 July 1930 entry no 171) as a seasoned criminal and gang affiliate. The description of his modus operandi includes: ‘Violently [resists] arrest … frequents wine saloons, billiard rooms, and racecourses … consorts with prostitutes.’  This photograph shows Messenger at age 18

Short, thickset, foul-mouthed and illiterate, Guido Calletti was for two decades Darlinghurst’s most famous bludger, razorman and standover artist. From his criminal debut aged ten until his death from gunshot wounds in 1939, Calletti appeared in court 56 times, mostly for violent assault and robbery. Typically he assaulted and robbed pub patrons with whom he had struck up a temporary acquaintance. He was reputed to be an expert shot and extraordinarily fast with a razor and a knife.

Although Calletti was never charged with murder, police believed he was responsible for at least four killings. He remained an independent operator, never strongly aligned with any of the inner-city gangs. He was married to prostitute Nellie Cameron, and later had a long-running affair with famous consort of gangsters, Dulcie Markham.

Mug shot of Neville McQuade (18) and Lewis Stanley Keith (19), North Sydney Police Station, early June 1942

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.