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Unending Fascination

February 22, 2012

Hazel McGuinness, coke dealer (Photo: dailymail.co.uk)

Hazel McGuinness, accused coke dealer (Photo: dailymail.co.uk)

While the drawings of Grace Marks and James McDermott are found in Alias Grace the images are not satisfactory enough to get a real idea of what either of them looked like. Newspaper and TV reports of criminals that include photos or video almost always describe whether the accused has “empty eyes” or a “guilty expression” or some other body part that admits their part in the crime. And if the reports don’t mention how guilty or innocent the person looks, there are plenty of other commentators who will.

There’s a never-ending fascination with the people who have been caught and accused of being a part of the dark and dirty underworld, where their illegal actions may even be commonplace in their personal value system. Recently The Daily Mail (UK) posted an article filled with the mugshots of Australian women prisoners during the 1920s.

Most of the photos have the look of self-portraits a lot of iPhone users have been desperate to grab of themselves for their Twitter accounts. They look modern, and some of them even look romantic. But these women lived during a time when simply getting the right to vote was a really big deal, a right so many people take for granted today. They look no different than photos of our own great-grandmothers and grandmothers. They are probably less evil and mentally disturbed than they were desperate. Desperation drives both men and women to places they probably never thought they’d arrive. A more modern storytelling in this same vein is AMC’s “Breaking Bad“, where a mild-mannered science teacher turns to a life of crime when he starts cooking and selling meth to support his medical treatments and growing family. Aside from the details, though, how much has the story changed in centuries? Among the group of women pictured are accused abortionists who killed or injured the women they were trying to help, much like Mary Whitney’s own ‘story’. What drove these women to do what they were accused of? Were they really guilty? Were they criminals because of the adrenaline rush of committing the crime, or was it based purely on their survival? What, if any, judgments can be made from viewing these photos?

Even if we had Grace Marks’ photo we would still not have the power to know what happened at the Kinnear farm, or decide what thoughts had gone through her head. It would be interesting to see her actual face, rather than an illustration, but as we know now the shape of one’s head does not define our personalities nor our capacity for criminal behaviour. The only thing we could do with a photo is make judgments, whether they were conscious ones or not – “Does she look guilty?” and “Are there any clues of her guilt or innocence when her eyes meet ours?”

From “Celebrated Murderess” to “Femme Fatale”… see if you don’t catch yourself asking similar questions and drawing your own conclusions while viewing these 1920s photos.

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