Anna Mae McNeil stares past the camera, the smudge of an old bruise under her right eye. The words “New Castle, Pa., No. 220” are written in white ink below her face. It is Feb. 5, 1933, and Anna Mae has just shot and killed her husband.
The more I learned about the world that the people in the mug shots inhabited, the more their lives began to feel like the back stories of minor characters in a richly detailed film noir that Hollywood had somehow neglected to make.
The photo is one of the latest mug shots that Scotsman Diarmid Mogg has posted on Small Town Noir, a rabbit hole of a website that has a singular focus: hundreds of mid-century mug shots, all of them the small town of New Castle, Pennsylvania.
If he had posted the photos alone, we would be briefly mesmerized by the black-and-white pathos of their expressions, and then move on. But Mogg has taken the extraordinary step of researching every mug shot on the site, and written stories that wouldn’t look out of place in a James M. Cain novel about the people in a town that’s been left behind.
As Mogg writes on the site: “Small Town Noir is dedicated to recovering the life stories behind mug shots from the vanished golden age of one American town.
“The men and women in these mug shots are nobody special, but they saw things that none of us will ever see. They were all arrested in New Castle, a small town in western Pennsylvania, right over by the Ohio border. It was once one of the most industrially productive cities in America, but all that’s gone now.”
It’s become a magnificent obsession for Mogg (who will no doubt appreciate the allusion to the Douglas Sirk melodrama). He’s even traveled to New Castle, an experience he says “felt like being in a dream — or, rather, like finding yourself in a place you thought only existed in one of your recurring dreams.”
I chatted with him via email about his tremendous endeavour. The exchange has been slightly edited for length and flow, but the answers are lovely and lyrical. I highly recommend reading to the end.
OK, first of all, tell me how this all got started. When I came across the site a few years ago, I have this memory that it began in a Scottish antiques store, of all places. But now I’m not sure if I imagined that…
I became interested in mug shots through a book called “Least Wanted,” by Mark Michaelson, which came out in 2006. The book contained only small-time crooks – no Charlie Mansons or Al Capones, just ordinary people photographed on what was probably the worst day of their lives. I was fascinated by the range of expressions, the haircuts, the clothes. Such faces. Only a few of the pictures had any identifying information, so the pictures had a wonderful quality of mystery. I’m a big fan of film noir and 30s and 40s American films in general, so, of course, my imagination dredged up those movies, those characters and those stories as I studied the pages of the book.
But no matter how wonderful the quality of mystery is – and it’s essential to my enjoyment of anything, I think – I wanted to know more about the lives of the people in the pictures. So when I saw a cheap bundle of six mug shots for sale on eBay that had identifying information in the form of arrest cards, I bought them – I think they cost about $10. The seller was someone who ran an antique store on the Isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. How the pictures got there, I don’t know, but it meant the postage was cheap.
Each of the six arrest cards listed various pieces of information, including the person’s name and age, the crime with which they had been charged and the date and place of their arrest. All six people were from the same town: New Castle, Pennsylvania, a place I’d never heard of. I checked newspaperarchive.com and saw that its database contained back issues of the local paper, the New Castle News, going back over a hundred years.
The first one on the pile was Martin Fobes, who had been arrested for intoxicated driving in 1948. I ran a search for his name, and found about 30 results over 50 years, from the announcement of the birth of his daughter in 1929 to his obituary in 1969. Most of the mentions were in the paper’s local events pages and were what you might expect to find — commonplace traces of a normal life. But the articles that came up for the month of his arrest were a different matter: two front-page stories in one week, headlined, “Officers Probe Woman’s Death” and “Cause Of Girl’s Death Is Mystery.” It turned out his arrest for intoxicated driving had been something in the way of a holding charge that the police used to keep him in jail while they investigated his part in the death of an 18-year-old girl. I fell down the research rabbit hole, chasing up other mentions in later papers, cross-referencing people who were mentioned in other reports, following up the lives of the witnesses and the histories of the businesses that had been involved and so on. I wrote up the notes into a story so I wouldn’t forget what I’d found out and started researching the next one – and on and on.
The photos are mesmerizing, with a very James M. Cain vibe. What gets me is that these aren’t big-time crooks or, for the most part, even small-time hoods. It’s everyday people at their worst moment, when they’ve either made a mistake or been driven to do something extreme. What moves you the most about the photos?
I’m not particularly interested in famous people – it’s almost as if they’ve been over-imagined already, so there’s not much for my imagination to do with them. Famous criminals are even less interesting than regular famous people. What motivates a serial killer to commit a crime? Obviously, it’s their psychopathy, which, although it manifests in different ways, always leads to the same story. But what motivates an ordinary person to commit a crime? Well, who knows? There are millions of possibilities – fear, stupidity, bravado, hopelessness. Of course, in the case of my mug-shot people, it’s often just that they were drunk.
I think there’s a certain feeling that you get when you read the site for a while, brought about by the knowledge that all these pictures were almost lost forever, and the idea that all these people were almost forgotten forever — perhaps a sort of melancholy sense of transience that chimes with the idea that the New Castle that those people knew has vanished and that, one day, everyone you know, along with you yourself, will be gone.
But there’s more than that. As you know, I’m only really interested in mug shots from New Castle, and that’s because, through researching the lives of the people in the town, I’ve become totally fascinated by the town itself. From the start, the place names – Locust Street, Croton Avenue, Shenango, Neshannock – were powerfully evocative of a certain idea of America, although one that, in all honesty, probably exists only in the minds of Europeans like me, whose imaginations have been shaped by a love of B-movies, Dashiell Hammett stories and all of that. The more I learned about the world that the people in the mug shots inhabited, the more their lives began to feel like the back stories of minor characters in a richly detailed film noir that Hollywood had somehow neglected to make.So, when I look at the face of someone in a New Castle mug shot, I’m looking directly into the eyes of someone who has seen something that I’ve imagined vividly but will never see, because the town that existed then has gone forever.
And now you’re obsessed. I love how that you research even something like the deer sweater one guy wears in his mug shot. How much of your life is taken up with Small Town Noir? What’s your day job?
The amount of time varies, depending on the availability of mug shots. A couple of years ago, I had around a hundred mug shots to research at once, and I worked on them for about eight hours a day for a couple of months. That was peak obsession, but it was great because it meant that my imagination was entirely consumed by New Castle. These days, I work on them in any spare time I have. Old records and newspapers are digitized all the time, so it’s always worth running a check on names to see if anything fresh has come up.
I work as a parliamentary reporter in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, producing the official record of debates and other proceedings. I suppose you could say it was a copy-editing job, but the copy comes in the form of speeches and exchanges in committees.
In the “About” page, you give us a little history of New Castle, its glory days in the first half of the last century and its slide into yet another forgotten and shrinking town in Middle America in the last 50 years. You seem to capture all of that forgotten America in one town, one filled with the kind of American-Dream-denied people who saw Donald Trump as the man who would bring back those glory years. Did you intend New Castle to be something metaphorical?
No, not at all; that’s simply the history of the town. If the first mug shots I bought had happened to come from pre-war Cupertino, for example, the tone of Small Town Noir would have been quite different as there would have been a mismatch between the improving fortunes of the town and the generally unlucky lives of the sort of people who end up in discarded mug shots. As it was, the fortunes of New Castle, as I see the place, parallel those of the unfortunates in the photographs, and each side of the story reinforces the other.
Let’s talk about how you do your reporting. I love your description of the small-town newspaper making sure everyone knew everyone’s business – long may it reign. That’s your biggest source, right? And how do you research that from Scotland?
As I said, I use online newspaper archives –newspaperarchive.com at first, and later the far superior newspapers.com. Most of the time I spend on the internet, I’m reading old newspapers. For me, the New Castle News from the end of the 19th century to the 1970s is like a very long experimental historical novel, with hundreds of characters weaving in and out of the main narrative. I could read it all day, every day.
(An aside: every day for the whole of 2011, I read the newspapers from 150 years ago that day instead of bothering with current papers. It was as close to time travel as you can get without doing anything stupid like giving up your job and moving into a log cabin up a mountain. Every week, in a blog that nobody ever read, I posted stories that I’d come across that struck me as interesting.)
You don’t just give us the facts – you’re very evocative and writerly. One post starts with a lede that a lot of literary journalists would love to have written: “Although it was April, thick snow had fallen throughout the day, turning to slush by the time Richard Bartley was arrested, at two in the morning, on the roof of Book’s shoe store.” What’s your background in writing?
I don’t have any background in writing — not in the sense that people generally mean by that. I studied English Lit at university, taught English as a foreign language abroad, did some copy-editing and technical authoring, and then got the job at the Parliament. I’ve always written, but, until Small Town Noir, nothing that I’d consider worth publishing.
One more writing example. This makes me think of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” (A book that had close-ups of the eyes of the killers, kind of like your site.) “A few days before his murder, a sixty-year-old man named Clark Rea told his brother that he had had a dream in which he was dead. They thought nothing more of it. He and his brother lived alone on their farm in the fields to the north of town, just off the Coaltown road. They were reclusive and no one knew them well. Everyone said they had huge sums of money stashed on their property, despite their ragged clothes and squalid house.” Can you talk a little about how you approach crafting the stories?
First, I get lost in old copies of the New Castle News, following up every mention of the name of the person in the mug shot, then tracing the stories of the people whose names came up during that search (partners in crime, brothers, sisters, victims), then reading about the places where the characters worked, committed crimes or were incarcerated, and so on. I search the newspaper for every searchable term that I come across, because it’s often the smallest detail that brings a person’s story to life or delivers the emotional punch. In that first sentence you quoted, the fact that the snowfall was unseasonal is irrelevant to the story in one sense — that there was snow is all we need to know, if that. But, given that it was his playful tossing of snowballs at passing pedestrians that caused the police to become aware of his presence, the fact that there shouldn’t even have been any snow that day (and that, therefore, he should never have been arrested, if the seasons had been behaving themselves) plays perfectly into the idea of bad luck and capricious fate that I like to emphasize in the stories.
It’s not as if I was expecting to see everyone walking around in suits and fedoras, or great armies of factory workers pouring out of the mill gates when the whistle blew — I was aware that most of the industry had closed down — but the absolute stillness of the place was surprising. It really did seem as if it had died.
Basically, I start with a name and follow every lead until I hit something remarkable, and then work hard to connect that remarkable thing back to the name. Clark Rea’s dream about his own death was a wonderful detail, but the connection to William LaRue Hill’s mug shot is really insubstantial (“One of the jurors who found them guilty was a young tin-mill worker named Charles Hill, who would become the father of William LaRue Hill, whose mug shot was taken in 1958, when he was the same age as the boys who had shot Clark Rea.”) but I think it works in the context of the other stories, because they all work on the underlying and unstated assumption that all these lives are connected and that everything that happens to these people has something to do with the town that they live in and the things that have happened to other people.
I have an absolute rule that I don’t state anything that I can’t back up, which means that I can’t impart motivation or emotion to people, in most cases, and I don’t let myself editorialize. I’m very aware as I’m writing that these people have relatives and descendants that may well have views about the person. That acts to rein in any flights of fancy or impulse to make a political or moral point — whenever I make a statement, I always ask whether I could justify it to an aggrieved relative.
How many posts have you done now? The site, by the way, is a true falling-down-a-rabbit-hole site. I could spend hours on it.
There are around 180 mug shots on the site. I think it works as a rabbit-hole site because the stories are short enough that you always feel you’ve room for just one more.
You’ve actually traveled to New Castle, right? Talk about how that felt to finally see it in person.
It was extremely strange. It felt like being in a dream — or, rather, like finding yourself in a place you thought only existed in one of your recurring dreams. I’d spent so long tracing people’s stories on Google Maps that I was able to find my way around, from crime scene to crime scene, quite easily. Except, of course, most of the crime scenes turned out not to be there. Huge sections of downtown were torn down and paved over in the 1970s. A street called Long Avenue used to be a buzzing working-class strip of diners, bars and late-night stores, and I always imagined it as being something like the main street in Pottersville, the jazzed-up version of Bedford Falls in the alternate reality section of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Of course, when I saw it, it was mostly empty lots — the occasional brick building standing among weeds and broken cement.
I was a little shocked by how empty and bleak the streets felt. I’d watched a short documentary from the thirties that showed the town absolutely heaving with people, and I’d seen a lot of old photographs of the place, and those images had given me a sort of baseline impression of the town as it had been. It’s not as if I was expecting to see everyone walking around in suits and fedoras, or great armies of factory workers pouring out of the mill gates when the whistle blew — I was aware that most of the industry had closed down — but the absolute stillness of the place was surprising. It really did seem as if it had died. On the south side, the surrounding woods are slowly taking over, pushing into the spaces between the rotting houses and filling up the lots left empty by all the house fires.
And the factories were all derelict and standing in ruins — there had just been a fire in the old pottery works, and it looked like a bomb had hit it. The whole place looked like there’d been a war that New Castle had lost.
But it was also fantastic — that dreamlike feeling didn’t go away. It’s similar to the feeling that I guess everyone gets the first time they go to New York and see businessmen hailing yellow cabs, or obese cops eating donuts in patrol cars or whatever other totemic imagery they’ve absorbed from countless films and TV shows. It’s all real! It looks like a movie, but it’s all real! It was like that, but quite different, because I was aware that I was the only person who was having those thoughts — probably the only person who would be capable of having those thoughts, because no one else cares about New Castle, unless they know it already.
Can I ask about a couple of the stories that stay with me the most? Your latest one, Sophia Lyskooka. She gave her baby up for adoption and was arrested four years later when she abducted the girl. It’s the last line that gets me: “Sophia never saw Helen again.” How did you find that out?
The short answer is that her niece told me, but here’s how that came about. Sophia’s name was misspelled on her arrest card — the officer had written “Lyshooka” instead of “Lyskooka,” so I couldn’t find out anything about her. A woman called Sandy Sweet left a comment on the post. She had an aunt called Sophie, whose maiden name was Lyskooka and who had a brother called Julius who died in the war. She said the woman in the picture wasn’t her aunt. Using the information she gave me, I did more digging and found out that the woman in the picture definitely was her Aunt Sophie, and I was able to find a press report of the abduction. I wrote to Sandy with what I’d found. She’d never heard of the event or of the lost child, but she talked to her sister, who said she remembered hearing something about it. Both of them agreed that Sophia must have never seen Helen after the adoptive family moved out of state. She told me that her aunt Sophie is 91, and widowed. She’ll never hear of the resurfacing of the mug shot or the painful old story.
And then there’s Anna Mae McNeil, who shot her no-account husband to death in front of their little boy. You were helped by court transcripts, which were amazing. And then the coda, of the husband’s father committing suicide soon after. When you’re reporting something like this, do you sometimes get goosebumps at your discoveries?
Absolutely. Especially because, in that case, no one had made the connection between the suicide and the fact that his son had been killed four months before, and that he’d spoken in defence of his son’s killer. The press reports just didn’t mention it — there were only a brief few paragraphs, and the fact that he was unemployed was probably seen as sufficient reason. But they missed gold!
Now why don’t you talk about one or two that stay with you, and why?
Sidney Fell, arrested for sodomy on August 21, 1960. The picture is an absolutely first-rate portrait — you could read all sorts of things into his expression, and the story that I uncovered has a bit of everything that I hope to get out of my research: some New Castle history; a tale of injustice; an unexpected tangent (musical theater, in this case); and even a sample of the subject’s own words. He must have been an amazingly strong character — what must he have gone through, being known as a gay man in the 1960s in a west Pennsylvania steel town? I talked to a guy who grew up in New Castle in the 70s and 80s and who was often bullied for being gay (although he wasn’t; he just liked to read books at lunch), and he confirmed my suspicion that Sidney must have dealt with his fair share of abuse. And I love the fact that the comments on the story have become a little memorial to Sidney, with people leaving fond reminiscences of him. This one is great: “The Sidney I knew first as a 15-year-old girl was well-read, openhearted, interested in the world around him, creative, empathic, handsome, kind. As I look at the photo here I imagine this sad and serious face slowly changing into a smile and then breaking into his glorious head-back, unfettered laugh.”
And Ross Paswell, arrested for highway robbery on February 2, 1945. He lived a remarkable life, too. He seemed to have been utterly unable to follow any rule — stubborn to the point of self-harm. He was in jail all the time, and when he was in jail, he ended up in solitary. The reports of his arrests gave me a rough outline of his life, but all the color came from his many letters to the New Castle News, in which he sounded off about various political and social causes. He ended up being well known in Pennsylvania justice circles as a penal reform campaigner. His son Jamie wrote to me, delighted to have found the picture of his dad. He traveled to New Castle to meet me the second time I went there, and we spoke for a long time about his dad, and about what it was like to grow up with Ross Paswell as a father. Jamie was so happy that someone had written something about his dad — everyone knew the darker side of the story, so there was no sense in which any dirty laundry was being aired. I gave him the mug shot, and it’s now hanging in a frame on his living room wall.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from people? Why do you think it has resonated with them?
People who like it seem to really like it. A lot of people have written to say they’ve lost hours to the site, reading one story after another. Some tell me they feel almost hypnotized by the way the stories loop back and forward through time, and they like the way that makes them feel about history. That makes me happy.
Some like the focus on ordinary people — people like them, that is — who seem to be otherwise ignored by serious culture. I think there’s a certain feeling that you get when you read the site for a while, brought about by the knowledge that all these pictures were almost lost forever, and the idea that all these people were almost forgotten forever — perhaps a sort of melancholy sense of transience that chimes with the idea that the New Castle that those people knew has vanished and that, one day, everyone you know, along with you yourself, will be gone. That might sound depressing, but I think that the very fact of the existence of all these stories about ordinary people’s lives is a reminder to the reader that everyone is worth remembering.
You’re planning a book on the project. How is that progressing? What’s next? I could totally see a screenplay inspired by this.
The Unbound crowd-funding campaign didn’t raise enough to justify publishing the book, which was bad news. However, I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to get a book of the stories published at some point. The act of reading all the stories chronologically from 1930 to 1960 is completely different from reading stories at random — there’s a clear narrative arc from the depression, through the war years, to the beginning of the end of industry, but the edges are blurred by all the strange tangents spinning out from the individual stories, which go back to the civil war and forward to the space age.