The First Mugshot

Thursday, May 29, 2008

This photograph (top) has been somewhat incongruously making its way around the internet recently. However, I guess this should not be altogether surprising as it’s a powerful and seductive picture. It appears heroic in a Che Guevara kind of way, and it’s very chic! However, it is in reality 143 years old and a precursor to the mugshot, being a prison portrait of Lewis Paine (who attempted unsuccessfully to murder Secretary of State William Seward as part of the conspiracy in which John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln).

The photograph was taken in 1865 by Alexander Gardner, the famous civil war photographer also known for his definitive portraits of Lincoln. He photographed Paine and his co-conspirators on board the prison ship on the Potomac where they were incarcerated. Three months later they were hanged.

What is so haunting about the picture is the confidence and poise with which Paine looks at the camera and the modernity of his whole look. As you scroll down, you can see in the picture where the guard is standing beside him that he was enormously tall and if you study the photographs closely, there is certainly a kind of jock arrogance about the man. He’s a fanatic and a fashionista at the same time.

But as we all know pictures can be deceiving. While Paine failed in his task of killing Seward, he brutally stabbed him as well as injuring his two sons Fredrick and Augustus. And while Booth was the only assassin who succeeded in his task, the conspiracy not only robbed America of one of its greatest presidents but set a path of violence that continues to haunt America.

Bodies of the four condemned prisoners at Fort McNair, Washington, following their execution on July 7, 1865. From left, Mary Surratt, Lewis Paine, David Herold and George Atzerodt. Photo by Alexander Gardner.


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