The other night I was watching the Depression-era gangster flick Road to Perdition for the first time. In the movie, Jude Law plays a character named Harlen Maguire, an assassin who is contracted to kill Tom Hanks’ character, Michael Sullivan. Besides being a killer, Maguire is also a photographer who takes pictures of dead bodies at crime scenes. When he was taking his photographs, and when several were displayed on the wall of his apartment, I was reminded of this book by Luc Sante. I don’t how much of a “forgotten” book it is, but it’s possibly one that many people don’t know about in the first place.
The photographs in this book are somewhat gruesome, and though I don’t consider myself particularly morbid I still find them utterly compelling. Sante says himself, in the text, “The photographs on the following pages may inspire horror, as well as pity, and maybe morbid fascination and dull voyeurism. This is unavoidable, but it is not intended. I am presenting them because of their terrible eloquence and nagging silence.” Heavy stuff.
For some insight into how the book came to be, here is a passage from the inner sleeve:
In the mid-1980s, workers clearing out the old New York police headquarters made room by dumping roomfuls of old records into the East River. While doing research for Low Life — his now classic study of New York’s seedy underbelly between 1840 and 1919 — author Luc Sante came across a forgotten treasure trove of 1400 preserved images; all that was left of the department’s vast photo evidence files.
The 55 photos in Evidence – NYPD Crime Scene Photographs 1914-1918 are what he gleaned from that discovery. As interesting as these photos are, one must wonder how much fantastic history was lost through the process that led to Sante’s discovery!
This book is almost entirely photographs. There is a short introduction at the beginning that explains where the photos came from and how the book came to be, then the pages containing the photos themselves, one image per page. At the end is a short description of what Sante believes each image is of; one can’t be sure, as there were no accompanying records nor attributions for the photos, though history does tell us who some of the photographers doing that work were at the time. Here are a couple scans from the book as examples (my scanner is dying — the photos in the book are actually much better).
23. No caption. The license plate is of 1918 issue. The story is almost certainly the following:
FIND BODY IN A BARREL
MURDERED MAN HAD THROAT CUT AND 24 STAB WOUNDS
Three small children playing in a vacant lot in 45th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, in Brooklyn, at dusk yesterday came across a wine barrel the head of which had been covered by burlap nailed to the sides. They tore this off and saw a pair of feet sticking out. They ran away frightened and told a man, who notified the police of the Fourth Avenue Station. Captain Arthur Carey, Chief of the Homicide Bureau, took fingerprints and ordered the body removed to the Fourth Avenue Station. There it was found the man had been murdered. His throat was cut, his face and forehead gashed, and there were 24 stab wounds on the upper part of his body. Identity was established by means of a draft card found in a pocket of the coat. This showed he was Gaspare Candella, with a police record here, in Boston, and in Washington D.C. Gaspar lived at 1529 East 54th Street, Brooklyn. The police say the man was killed as a result of a feud. [the New York Times, November 9, 1918]
The practice of stuffing bodies into barrels, usually with their tongues slit, is an old Mafia way of taking care of snitches. It was a habit associated with the New York City Mafia’s first great capo, Ignazio Lupo, and was probably not ignored by the Brooklyn Camorra, either. In 1918 Lupo was in jail and many other old leaders were in the process of being forcibly retired, while the young bloods of the Unione Siciliana were waging a citywide leadership war. Candella may well have been a victim of this fray. The only other conceivable explanation would be a particularly demented crime of passion.
What I find interesting are the little details of life in the era, and, in looking at the photographs, some sense of what living conditions were like. Here is one more example:
38. No caption. The location of this scene is not evident, although the size of the table and the impersonal-looking prints may suggest a boardinghouse or a private drinking club, perhaps a blind tiger (a pre-Prohibition illegal bucketshop) of a relatively refined sort. The ceiling is low, which may mean that it is on an attic floor. The victim was probably shot from his right, since the larger hole in the window is probably the bullet’s path of exit. The victim was well dressed, as his tie and his fancy fur hat indicate. Possibly, given the circumstances, he was a gangster.
This stuff is just fascinating to me. What were the lives of these people like? What were the events, the last moments, that led up to their deaths. We can only speculate. The books is full of horrible, yet intriguing, images.