Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Antique Mall. Antique Find. Antique History.

Recently my wife asked me if I wanted anything from Amazon. She had a credit, and wanted to know if I could use it. So, I got on and looked around. Nothing. While in that frame of mind I headed over to eBay. Nothing there, either. Craigslist. Nothing. Etsy. Found something there, but it was too much so I decided against it. Turns out I really don't have much of a need to add to my life. I didn't realize my minimalism had gotten so "bad." I could've ordered anything I wanted...and none of it appealed to me. But, a recent trip to an antique mall did turn up a little treasure.

One can always find something cool at an antique mall. I was specifically looking for anything I might put in my office. We were in nearly the last section, and running out of rooms, when I saw something. It was on a rack with various magazines. It's aged appearance made me step over a soapbox derby car. It was only $3, and it was from November 1895. Then, I saw what caused me to pass it off to one of the workers and have them save it at the front counter. (I don't know if that's done everywhere, but it is at this place. Rather handy.)

The article that made me buy it was the one titled 'Identifying Criminals' - an illustrated piece by one A.F.B. Crofton. (In a timely find, the article below it is 'Taking the New York Police Out of Politics' by Theodore Roosevelt.) Now, I didn't find a whole lot on Crofton, but I know he wrote another couple of articles along the same lines. This one, however, was actually mentioned the next month in a now long-gone newspaper in Indianapolis (where I live). We'll get to the specifics of that in a moment.

My intention was to talk about the content of the article, but it really is just a rehash of things we already know. It discusses the differences in ears, and the measurements of skulls and other body areas for inclusion in the Alphonse Bertillon system of identification. It's only a few pages, and really doesn't offer anything new, but when I was searching for a photo of the author, I came across an interesting side story.

(I did learn one thing, though. There's a line that says, "The Chicago police department has adopted the French system in toto, and now has the most elaborate bureau of identification on the planet." Until I read the article I don't recall ever having come across the phrase 'in toto'. Maybe it's more popular than I imagine, and it came right up on Google, but I wasn't aware of it. I do enjoy little tidbits like that.)

Bertillon, as you may know, was mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN) and 'The Naval Treaty' (NAVA). I did a lot of research on him about fifteen years ago for one of the first pieces I ever had published. Above is a really bad picture of the opening page. He started the whole bertillonage system in 1883, thus his inclusion in those two stories has no true effect from a chronological stance. So, we'll have to get to that side story to make this an interesting post.

There are numerous photos in the piece of the same man showing him in all different types of disguises. He isn't identified, and isn't technically called a criminal anywhere, but his inclusion was enough to cause the actual guy to file a libel suit against the publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine. This is where it gets bizarre.

Above is a small item from The Sunday Journal of Indianapolis on December 8, 1895. It talks about a lawsuit brought by one De Lancey Nicoll (New York District Attorney) against John Brisben Walker, editor of the Cosmopolitan, on behalf of a Mr. George W. Porteous of Chicago. Mr. Porteous identified himself as the man in the pictures, and believed it was enough to file a libel suit as he was in fear of not being able to go anywhere without being identified, and possibly detained, as a bad dude.

How did this all come about? (I know you're asking that.) George claimed he had the photos taken in 1889, and that when he was done with them he gave them to his friend, Major R. W. McClaughry, who was warden of the Pontiac penitentiary in Illinois. The pictures, it seems, were given to the author, Crofton, when he was asking for examples to include in the Cosmo article. Porteous claimed they were obtained illegally, something Walker, the editor, disclaimed. The twist, one of two, is that Porteous was the guy that introduced the Bertillon system to the U.S., and was having the pictures done as a sort of sales technique to peddle his product. The other twist is that Crofton, the guy who wrote the Cosmo piece, was a prisoner at Pontiac.

So, it turns out the guy in the photos is not as anonymous as he seems. That's poor Porteous. I wasn't able to find another picture of him to compare to the ones above, but he said it was him, and the whole thing sound legit to me. Now, Walker did offer to make a full retraction, but Porteous was not satisfied with that. I have no idea if he and McClaughry remained friends after everything, nor what ultimately happened with the case.

It's always a gratifying thing to come across these little oddities in history. Not only does it show that there's always something waiting to be found, but also that Sherlock Holmes can be included in some small way if you look hard enough. This find had somewhat of an impact way back then, but is now just a footnote. I found other mentions of the Cosmo piece in other books and publications, so it was in the news, and I was able to understand why Porteous was so upset. Suddenly his face was semi-famous, and he started fearing the consequences of it. I can only hope those fears went unrealized.

For those who have asked...
I feel a lot better. I am back to work full-time, and have my energy and breathing at pre-illness levels. Looks like I've kicked this thing. At least for now.

If you're interested in picking up a copy of the book my 'Covet Your Skull' item is in, it's available through my home society, The Illustrious Clients of Indianapolis, in our society store. It's called Sherlock Holmes In The Heartland; The Illustrious Clients Fifth Casebook. I think it's still under 20 bucks, and can be obtained by doing the following:

I appreciate you riding along today, and as always...thanks for reading.