Mystery Photos: Duluth Counterfeiters of 1883

From left to right: Charles Chambers, James McGovern and Frank Watters

It was on this date 140 years ago — Sept. 10, 1883 — that the first arrests were made in connection to a counterfeiting operation at a Duluth grocery store.

The Library of Congress has cabinet-card photos of the three men, which were acquired in 2018 at a rare book and photograph shop and were part of the “William Kennoch collection of U.S. Secret Service photographs.”

Why did three counterfeiters have their photos taken at a studio and why were those photos kept together and passed around for a century? Perhaps in 1883 police departments didn’t have mugshot cameras and instead hired professional photographers like Duluth’s Paul B. Gaylord, whose surname appears on all three cards. And then the Secret Service took possession and so on?

Below is an Aug. 8, 1883 newspaper advertisement (via for Charles Chambers’ grocery store in Duluth.

1 Comment

Matthew James

about 10 months ago

This might be a more timely mystery than the 1883 date suggests. Because Donald Trump was recently the subject of the first presidential mug shot, a number of magazines and news outlets have used that occasion to write up a history of the mug shot. They all follow about the same narrative: the mugshot as we know it today was standardized in the 1880s through the work of Alphonse Bertillon, a Parisian police officer. 

One older article, however, mentions specifically that Bertillon System of a front photo and a side photo accompanied by other key information that only became known and popular in the United States after it was displayed at the 1893 Chicago's World Fair. Before that, which would be at the time of the above pictures, police took and shared photos of criminals, but not in any sort of standardized format, with this case of using a local photographer and writing conviction information on the back seeming to be one of many different approaches in use at the time.

Interesting that the first two men each got five years and a hundred dollar fine and the last guy got 7 days and a 10 dollar fine. That's a pretty substantial difference.

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