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Mug Shot Archives: Library Unearths Criminal History


Pope was pardoned in 1939 after a plea was made to the governor on behalf of her husband, a sharecropper in Southampton County. By himself, he couldn't care for their seven children — ages 6 to 21, including two sets of twins — so Pope went home.

Her photograph, fading along the bottom, is already succumbing to time. Both her image and her story would have been forgotten if Roger Christman, a senior archivist with the Library of Virginia, hadn't taken an interest in preserving more than 40,000 images of Virginia prisoners taken between 1934 and 1961.

These images on acetate negatives had been crammed in storage boxes where moisture and close proximity caused them to deteriorate. Christman holds out a small box that exudes a strong smell of vinegar, "a sure sign" of decay.

Since 2004, Christman has been carefully placing the negatives in individual sleeves and selecting the most endangered negatives for preservation. They're sent to Northeast Documentation Conservation Center, a nonprofit that, for $19 apiece, makes new, long-lasting negatives and prints of each mug shot.

It's a slow process, made yet slower by the availability of funds. About 1,600 negatives have been preserved thus far, and Christman is about to send in 1,243 more. He estimates it'll take several years to complete the task of preserving the pictures.

The state pen began photographing prisoners in 1906 on glass plates. Prior to that, prisoners' scars, limps and other distinguishing characteristics were simply written in large registers under the heading "Marks."

Occasionally, a picture like Pope's will arouse Christman's curiosity. Then he'll search for other records and letters in the prison files for more details about the person's life and crime. His finds thus far include the tales of a one-legged Italian cook who somehow escaped his work camp for a day and "wild child" Lizzie Dodson, who twice broke out of the Virginia penitentiary and gave birth to a boy while on the lam. S

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