Jan 08 2012

Laura Scott, Female Prisoner #23187

It was the hat that did it…

As regular readers of this blog know, I collect prison artifacts. I mostly focus on pre-1960s items (with a particular interest in the early 20th century). A couple of weeks ago, I decided to add to my collection of original vintage mug shots; I have dozens ranging from the early 20th century through the 1970s. I won’t go into why I started collecting these photographs — that will be a story for another day.

So I came across this Bertillon criminal card for sale online. These mug shot cards were known as Bertillon cards after the French law enforcement officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered criminal identification techniques such as anthropometry (measurement).

I knew instantly that I had to have this one. The card provides some basic details (though I won’t list them all).

Criminal Name: Laura Scott
Reg No: 23187
Age: 40
Birthplace: Alabama
Height: 67.8 inches
Weight: 150
Hair: Black
Eyes: Brown
Complexion: Black
Race: Negress
Occupation: Dressmaker
Crime: Pt. Larceny & Prior
Sentence: 5 years
Measurements taken: August 8, 1905

Laura Scott’s face is mesmerizing. There is a look of defiance in her eyes. This is the look of a woman who has been through this before. And then that incredible hat…

Aren’t you curious to know Laura Scott’s story? Well I certainly was and since I am a complete nerd, I set out to learn everything that I could about this black woman who was incarcerated at the infamous San Quentin Prison in 1905.

How did Laura Scott end up on that Bertillon card? Well, an item that appeared in the August 5, 1905 edition of the Los Angeles Herald offers some initial clues:

“Laura Scott, negress, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to one year in San Quentin prison. The woman was accused of stealing (85?) and a gold watch and chain from Carson. ”

Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of Laura Scott with you. It’s a story that has led me to the California Archives and to Census Records from the 1800s. It’s a story cobbled together from disparate sources and is based on my original research. Laura Scott’s story has its roots in Reconstruction era Alabama, in the Black Belt and takes us all the way to California at the turn of the 20th century. Through Ms. Scott’s story, I hope to provide a portrait of what life was like for female prisoners in the late 1800s-early 1900s in the U.S. I hope that you’ll continue with me on this journey.

P.S. Reading about the history of San Quentin Prison makes me appreciate this song by Johnny Cash even more…