GR to post historic jail photos on Instagram, online

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids is working to bring some law-breaking history to the digital world including Instagram, which could help people find a missing branch to their family tree.

Grand Rapids Archives
Grand Rapids Archives Officer Tony Wright shares some of the historic booking photos the city is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

“More people want to find the great grandfather, the great uncle or that sort of black sheep in the family who was a bootlegger or the aunt from long, long ago who was probably a flapper,” said Grand Rapids Archives Officer Tony Wright.

Wright says for the last year, the city has been working to digitize a collection of Grand Rapids booking photos snapped from 1928 to 1934, which someone saved from a dumpster.

Grand Rapids Archives
Grand Rapids Archives Officer Tony Wright shares some of the historic booking photos the city is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

The photos are in great condition and each mug shot has detailed information about the person, including their age, if they were married, their home address and details of their previous arrests.

Many of the booking photos were taken before fingerprinting was protocol, so officers used other means of identifying violators.

“So if you were arrested, what they would do is measure things like your face and sort of get body measurements because that made you unique,” explained Wright.

Grand Rapids Archives
A photo shows one of the historic booking photos Grand Rapids Archives Center is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

“In many cases, these are the only known photographs of the individuals,” said Wright. “Because it’s hard to know if any other images of these people exist within the families.”

The records are great for genealogy, but they also give a glimpse into history. The photos were taken during the Prohibition era and the Great Depression.

For many of those booked, their main offense was “VIO LL,” or violation of the liquor law. There are also records of gambling and shoplifting rings. Wright says the majority of women were arrested for shoplifting and prostitution in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids Archives
A photo shows one of the historic booking photos Grand Rapids Archives Center is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

The historic mug shots were also taken during the Great Migration.

“So many African Americans are leaving the South and moving up to Midwestern cities like Grand Rapids,” said Wright. “We also have many people coming to the United States from Eastern and Central Europe, so that is definitely changing the way our cites are made up.”

The Instagram page of Grand Rapids booking photos will launch next month. The city says it will take a couple years to get all of the mug shots online, but some are already posted.

Grand Rapids Archives
A photo shows one of the historic booking photos Grand Rapids Archives Center is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

Wright says the collection of images is invaluable.

“History shows us the past and how we have progressed, and in a way how we kind of make the same mistakes,” he said. “History is a great lesson.”

Grand Rapids Archives
A photo shows one of the historic booking photos Grand Rapids Archives Center is working to digitize. (Aug. 12, 2019)

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