A collection of photographs from the Chicago Tribune archives rejects spectacle in favor of brutal, messy truth.
Even a casual observer of American history will no doubt recognize several of the names in Gangsters and Grifters, a new book of early 20th century crime photographs from the Chicago Tribune archives. John Dillinger (and his corpse) monopolizes a handful of pages. A smirking Al Capone makes a few courtroom appearances. But this isn't another text seeking to glorify the Second City's criminal past.
Photo editors Erin Mystkowski, Marianne Mather, and Robin Daughtridge, who refer to themselves as "The Dames of the Chicago Tribune Photo Department," made a conscious effort to offer a more holistic representation of the annals of Chicago's notorious history. Through 125 thoughtfully curated photographs, juxtaposed next to the corresponding Tribune headlines, the somber realities of Chicago's historical criminal activity become apparent.
"There's nothing romantic about these photos," says Mather, "and I think that was an interesting thing for us: to show Chicago's history as truthfully as possible."
The images are brutal and difficult, yet engrossing. Part of what makes them so compelling is that they come from an era in which the boundaries of what could and could not be captured on film were far less defined. Newspaper photographers had extensive access not only to crime scenes, but to private moments in the lives of those touched by violence: families, victims, police officers, lawyers—even the accused themselves.
"If we were to print those today, it would be quite shocking," says Mather.
One photograph in the book that particularly illustrates this bygone openness shows a man named Nick Kuesis identifying 20-year-old James Morelli as the man that shot him in the neck and murdered his brother, John. "That’s the dirty bastard that killed my brother," said Kuesis, pointing confidently at Morelli from his hospital bed with a bandage wrapped around his wound. A detective stands between them. Morelli doesn't meet his eye.
"First of all, we wouldn't have access to shoot that today," notes Mather, "and we probably wouldn't have printed that in the paper, either."
But it's not just the unburdened accessibility of the Tribune's photojournalists that makes Gangsters and Grifters noteworthy. The editors have also taken care to balance the infamy of iconic figures like Capone and Dillinger with lesser-known (but just as devious) personalities. It's a dissection of the well-worn narrative of crime and Chicago, one that seeks to reveal the humanity behind the headlines.
"What I think is so fascinating about these pictures is that these are the actual people that all that pop culture is based on," says Mystkowski. "These are the real people who are Chicago and lived through that."
(Images reprinted with permission from Gangsters & Grifters by the Chicago Tribune staff, Agate Publishing, 2014)