Real lives, real faces: the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s mug books at History San José

City of Chicago Police Department Bulletin
City of Chicago Police Department Bulletin, featuring gangster John Dillinger, center left
Mug books and scrapbooks dating from 1874 to 1941, from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office, are one of the more unusual collections in History San José’s archives. Initially, the Sheriff’s office simply logged in the various miscreants, with mug shots and descriptions, but by the turn of the century, the office assembled scrapbooks filled with wanted notices from law enforcement officials around the state, and eventually from across the country.

The earliest of the 29 volumes are typical of the mug books of the era. The front of each page contains photographs of persons arrested throughout Santa Clara County. On the back are the physical descriptions, charges brought against the individual, and the sentence imposed, if caught and convicted. As in many a movie or TV western, the crimes in these early volumes range from larceny and assault to horse or cattle theft, stage coach robbery, and murder. In one instance, the criminal is described as “a bad egg,” and the sentence reads only “Dead.”

Tiburcio Vasquez
Tiburcio Vasquez
An occasional woman can be found among those sought or detained, most often for larceny, petty theft or forgery. By far, the mug books are filled with men, often wearing identical coats and ties. One can assume that the photographer provided this wardrobe prior to taking the picture.

Penalties for the convicted ranged from a few days in County Jail (for theft of strawberries, for example) to years in the state penitentiary at San Quentin or at Folsom. The occasional convicted murderer met death by hanging. Among the most famous of local criminals of the 1870s was Tiburcio Vasquez, who had a long career (1854-1874) as a horse and cattle thief, stage coach robber, highwayman, kidnapper, and murderer. He was finally captured in 1874, tried in San Jose, and convicted of murder. While awaiting his death sentence, the handsome, literate and charming 39-year old Vasquez had a stream of women visitors in his cell, and he sold photos of himself through the jailhouse window to help pay his legal expenses. When he was hanged in March 1875, his final word was “pronto” (quick). A note was added to his entry: “He deserves credit for the manner in which he faced death.” Vasquez’s photo from this mug book has been widely reproduced.

Virgil Earp wanted flyer
Virgil Earp, “Wanted for Adultery”
Beginning in 1895, the ledgers became scrapbooks of flyers, postcards, and posters of criminals being sought. At first, these notices came from jurisdictions throughout California, but before long, we begin to see notices from Montana, Missouri, Texas, and increasingly distant venues.

One of the most prominent individuals for whom a wanted flyer was issued was Wyatt Earp’s brother Virgil. In 1905, the constable in Santa Rosa issued a warrant for Virgil’s arrest, on the charge of adultery. Sadly for us, these notices rarely included any information about apprehension, conviction, or release of the accused.

"Pretty Boy" Floyd Wanted Flyer
“Pretty Boy” Floyd Wanted Flyer
There are also a few wanted flyers for criminals who were prominent during the Prohibition era. In 1924, the Chief of Police in Lynchburg, Virginia, offered a $1000 reward for Charles A. Floyd (“Pretty Boy” Floyd), charged with rape. Floyd died ten years later in a shoot-out with Ohio police. Notorious gangster John Dillinger had a warrant issued for his arrest by the Chicago police, charged with murder and numerous bank robberies.

These volumes provide a fascinating insight into criminal activity and law enforcement during the last quarter of the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries. They have now been indexed by stalwart Research Library & Archives volunteer Joan Helms. The nearly 30,000 entries in the index can be searched by name, crime, sentence (if recorded), date, jurisdiction making complaint, and any aliases that might have been used.

The index is searchable online. Requests for photographs of specific pages or individuals may be sent to research@historysanjose.org ($5 fee per page).