Small Town Noir – the book!

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This post will remain at the top of the page while the book campaign is underway — scroll down for more recent updates!

NEWS! For a long time, I’ve wanted to produce a book of New Castle mug shots — a handsomely designed hardcover book that would properly memorialise the people whose lives I’ve written about and the troubled town I’ve become fascinated by.

That might be about to happen.

Publishers have always told me that the problem with a Small Town Noir book is that simply not enough people care about New Castle, and that the manuscript really ought to include more murderers. I understand their point. If it were set in New York, or if it were about the Mob, there would be a much more obvious market. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to write that book. The thing that captured my attention about the mug shots and New Castle was precisely the fact that the people were unknown and lived ordinary lives, and that the town had slipped from the world’s thoughts.

So I’ve teamed up with an innovative publishing company called Unbound, which uses a crowdfunding model to produce books by proving that there’s a demand for them before the publication process starts. We’ve worked together on a proposed outline for the book, which is exactly what I’d dreamed about: 150 full-page photographs on good paper, with 70,000 words of text; the pictures arranged chronologically from 1930 to 1960, so the passage of time is evident as you flick past changing hairstyles, fashions and types of photographic film stock; with the stories building up one after the other into a fractured portrait of a particular place and time that there’s really no other way to access.

If enough people pledge to buy the book, we can do this!

To support the project — I’d really love it if you did — click this link:

Longhair Noir

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Earl Burglary 1973

Most of the New Castle mug shots that were saved from the trash and later found their way into index card boxes in my house were taken in the middle years of the 20th century. But a few date from a little later, like the one above, of a guy called Earl (second name withheld; he’s still alive) who was arrested in 1973 for breaking into Castle Distributing and stealing five cases of beer, and the one below, of Ralph, fined $325 in 1970 for crashing his car into a parked car while drunk:

Ralph OMVWI 1970

The faces in these later mug shots are completely different from the ones in the mid-century photographs that I usually write about. It might just be a trick of the haircuts and clothes, but I don’t think so.

Carl OMVWI 1969

(This one’s Carl McClearn, arrested in 1969 for being AWOL from the army. He died a year later, when his car collided with a car that was being driven by his brother, up near Lake Erie. )

The people who were arrested in New Castle in the 40s and 50s were mostly European immigrants or their children. Their faces were shaped by the hard times that cause a family to uproot themselves from their old country and travel by boat and train to a smoky, grimy industrial city in a foreign land, and by the further hard times that followed as they struggled to establish themselves there during the turmoil of the depression and the subsequent years of war.

But the people in these later mug shots are third or fourth-generation Americans who were born at the peak of the baby boom, and they look it. I don’t know if faces like these existed in the 40s.

ronald lee turner b(Ronald, 1969 — siphoning two-thirds of a gallon of gasoline from a car on Lincoln avenue.)

Peter Involuntary Manslaughter OMVWI 1971(Peter, 1971 — involuntary manslaughter of his wife and two other passengers when his car ran off Highland avenue and hit a tree; later acquitted.)

A guy called Greg comes the closest to having what I might call a depression-era face. In 1970, his last year of high school, the New Castle News published a photograph of him and some other students who had decided to set a good example to their juniors by quitting smoking. He’s in the middle here:
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Later that year, after he left school, he was arrested for loitering. The following year, he was arrested for possession of an LSD tab. This mug shot was taken in 1973, after he was arrested for visiting a disorderly house.

Gregg Loitering 1973

It’s a mistake to read too much into a mug shot, which, after all, captures only a single moment on one of the worst days of the subject’s life, but Greg seems to have a pinched, underfed look that the others don’t share. Hard times of his own, no doubt.

New Castle’s long decline from being the world center of steel and tin production to a town abandoned by well over half of its population had already begun by the time these young men came of age, but the fact that the years of prosperity had gone forever hadn’t become apparent by the time they had their photographs taken. They might well have expected their lives to be at least as prosperous as their parents’. But they were probably wrong.


Once again, please go to Unbound to support the publication of the Small Town Noir book. Spread the word, too — I can’t do it without you!

Lou Miskinis, “Fighting”, 21 July 1949

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Louis Miskinis

Lou Miskinis got drunk and started fighting with Harry Hetrick and his wife on West Long avenue. Harry’s leg was in a cast. He broke a crutch over Lou’s head. Lou struggled with the police but was taken to the hospital for a deep cut to his scalp. He spent the night in jail and was released the next day. There is no further record of his life, until his death, in 1979, at the age of seventy-six.

I can find almost no trace of Lou (or Louis) Miskinis in my usual online sources—just one short report of his arrest—so I wasn’t going to publish a post about him, but this photograph might be the only record in the world of his remarkable moustache and it seems a shame to hide it away in a box of mug shots.

I’ve never seen a moustache like it on anyone else. (Click on the picture for a large version so you can examine it in detail. If that seems like the sort of thing you’d like to do.) Obviously, it’s a variety of pencil moustache, but one that has abandoned its traditional role of delineating the wearer’s top lip and has become instead a sort of horizontal smear bisecting the philtrum, which makes him resemble Groucho Marx caught in the act of removing his stage make-up, or maybe 1980s-period Robert Crumb.

If anyone knows what the style was called (if it even had a name) or has a picture of anyone else with something similar, they can leave a comment below.

Source: New Castle News, 22 August 1952, “Drunken Charge”.

£10 ($15) off the Small Town Noir book!

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Great news for the indecisive and/or poor! If you were thinking about pledging to buy the Small Town Noir book but haven’t done so because you reckon it’s about £10 (or $15) too much, this offer should help you out. For the next week—until midnight GMT on Wednesday 4th November (that’s 8pm EST)—you can use the code AUTUMN15 to get £10/$15 off a pledge, at any level. (An e-book version costs just £10, so the code would get you that for free, but it would bring the price of the far superior hardback edition to £15/$23.)

Just go to the Small Town Noir page on the publisher’s website and enter AUTUMN15 at check out.


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Last week, after I published a mug shot story about a New Castle businessman who ran a beach resort on a stretch of the Neshannock behind the paper mill’s dam, a long-time reader of the site who happens to be a film maker in Hollywood met an actor with family connections to the area. The actor has a career stretching back decades, with roles in Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, L.A. Law and ER, and his family connection turned out to be the fact that his wife’s grandfather was the businessman I’d just written about.

Small world.

The film maker put us in touch and we exchanged emails about New Castle, the mug shots and the life of his relative. He corrected a couple of mistakes I’d made and mentioned that the man had served in the first world war and had been given a veteran’s funeral with guns and a flag. But he also wrote:

“My wife’s mother, now 94, is upset and concerned that her father would be represented as a criminal… she would prefer that his photo and profile be removed from the book and the blog.”

What could I say? It’s an understandable request, so I took down the post.

That’s the first time any relative of one of the people in the mug shots has been unhappy with me telling the person’s story. Usually they seem pleased that someone has spent time thinking about their life and marking it in some way, even if that marker happens to be a story under an old mug shot. It’s surprising that there aren’t more people who don’t want their family’s business to be published on the internet. Then again, it’s also surprising that we’re able to buy people’s old mug shots on eBay, but there we are.

However, there’s a lot of small details in the businessman’s story that I love—the exotic branding of the swimming hole; the existence of a night club act called Blossom Alta; the fact that, at one point in Italy’s turbulent 20th century, running a macaroni factory in New Castle PA qualified a person for high office—so below is a version of the post with his name redacted.

E                   , “Numbers”, 18 January 1934.

A swimming hole was formed on the Neshannock creek north of town when the paper mill built a dam in 1833. It was known as paper mill beach, and a boy would drown there every year or two. In 1917, a man named Bill Hill bought a meadow beside the dam and erected concession stands and a dance hall. He encouraged people to call the place Hill’s beach, which they did. In 1939, the land was bought by a local businessman, E                  .

E’s father had come to New Castle from Italy in the early eighteen-nineties. With his brother, he opened a macaroni manufacturing plant and became a wholesale importer of olive oil, olives, cheese and hams. After twenty years in business, his brother returned home, where he was appointed minister of finance in the Italian government. E’s father stayed in New Castle.

E was his father’s first son. In the thirties, he opened New Castle’s only night club, a little way up the Neshannock from the center of town. It had two floor shows every night—such acts as Ann Vallee, “a sweet, beautiful songstress”; Dave Rose, “a singing comedian who puts comedy over with musical accompaniment”; and Blossom Alta, “eccentricities”. People danced under palm trees to the music of the Sophisti-Kats, the Streamline Swing Band, the Rhythm Kings. It was called the Casino. Gambling was illegal, but went on in a small way. E was arrested a couple of times for running numbers games. There is no record of any penalties.

E changed the name of the swimming hole to El Rio beach. (Bathing tickets 10 cents.) In the summer, it would be booked up every day with society picnics and factory outings. A couple of thousand people at a time would attend weekend dances. E kept the set-up that he had inherited from Bill Hill, without doing much in the way of maintenance. In 1960, the porch of the dance hall collapsed during a fireworks display, sending fifty people to hospital.

The place got more run down throughout the sixties and families started to stay away. There was a suggestion that a huge cave in the park might be turned into a nuclear fallout shelter, but nothing came of it. In 1967, the city bought the park from E for $25,000, in hopes of reviving it. Someone set fire to the dance hall a few years later. By the end of the seventies, no one much went there anymore.

E died in 1979, at the age of eighty-three.


Once again, please go to Unbound to support the publication of the Small Town Noir book. Spread the word, too — I can’t do it without you!

“I’d never seen a picture of my dad that young.”

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Find out more at:

I was amazed by Ross Paswell’s life when I first researched his mug shot. He was arrested for highway robbery in 1945 and spent most of the next 10 years in jail, much of the time in solitary. By the 60s, he was something of a local political radical and, in the 70s, he became an inspirational penal reform campaigner whose work was recognised by the state.

I met Ross’s son, Jamie, on a trip to New Castle a couple of years ago. There’s a lot that Jamie doesn’t know about his father’s life — Ross wanted it that way, only letting slip the merest hints about covert involvement with the Black Panthers and other such groups when asked to explain where he’d been on his periodic disappearances from the family home. But it was fascinating talking to Jamie, looking through the souvenirs of his father’s life and listening to his theories about what made his father into the man he became.

The full story — well, as full as possible — of Ross Paswell’s life is featured in the Small Town Noir book. To support the book, and receive a copy when it’s published, go to the publisher’s website. Please do! And spread the word!


This video is mostly an excerpt from the documentary “MUGSHOT“, and is presented here with much gratitude to the director, Dennis Mohr.

Vincent Carbeau, “Armed Robbery”, 13 April 1940

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Vincent_Carbeau (1)

Vincent Carbeau would have been a well known figure around New Castle, but his photograph won’t appear in the Small Town Noir book (please click that link and pledge to buy a copy, or there won’t be any such book!), simply because he had the misfortune to be booked in another town: Mansfield, Ohio. His mug shot, therefore, bears the stamp of another police department and I’m too much of a purist to allow it to sit with the rest.

Sorry, Vincent.

Mansfield is a small industrial town about 140 miles west of New Castle. Its history is similar to New Castle’s—it was founded around the same time, grew rich through the same mix of industries and, just like New Castle, lost its wealth with the collapse of manufacturing in the north-eastern states in the latter part of the 20th century.

In April, 1940, though, it was prosperous enough. Philip Schmutzler owned a busy little café on North Park street. He and his father had run it for thirty-four years. For most of that time, he’d walked unguarded to and from the bank with thousands of dollars in cash in his pockets. One Friday morning, Schmutzler was coming back from the bank with $1,140 in a black leather pouch and more money in his coat when he was stopped by two men. He’d served them in the café earlier—as he’d left to go to the bank, he’d thumped one of them on the shoulder and said, “Some summer day, isn’t it?”

One of the men was holding a .32 revolver. He shielded it from people on the street by holding the flap of his coat over it with his other hand. The other man pushed Schmutzler against a lamp post and said, “Give us your money.”

Schmutzler assumed they were joking. He elbowed the man and said, “What do you mean?”

The man repeated, “Give us your money.” Schmutzler smiled and elbowed him in the ribs again. The other man hit him on the head with a blackjack and Schmutzler fell into the arms of a woman who happened to be passing. He yelled for the police. The men grabbed the pouch with the money in it and ran down an alley. People nearby chased them and saw them drive off in a maroon sedan that had been waiting on Walnut street.

The car had Pennsylvania plates with the number D3X409. Shortly afterwards, the police traced its owner: Vincent Carbeau, of Ellwood City, a few miles south of New Castle.

At the age of 28, Vincent was an executive of his family firm, the Ellwood Company, which manufactured bathtubs and toilets and was the second largest employer in town. He was a graduate of Carnegie Tech. He was a Kiwanis organiser. He was considered “one of the nicest and most promising young men in the city.”

He was also Philip Schmutzler’s nephew, by marriage.

He admitted he had driven the getaway car, and he gave up the names of the other two men: William Justine and Rocco Cusato. All three were arrested and taken to Ohio.


Left to right: Justine, Carbeau, Cusato.

The Mansfield News-Journal published an interview with him a few days after his arrest.


The lure of ‘easy money’ led Vincent A Carbeau … to the dismal cell block in Richmond county jail, where he awaits grand jury hearing on a charge of armed robbery.

Carbeau stood at the iron bars of the bull pen in county jail this morning, dressed in the blue overalls and striped shirt which all prisoners wear. Yesterday, when he appeared in municipal court for arraignment, he wore a well-tailored blue suit.

There is neither rhyme nor reason for Carbeau’s act. Nor can he explain it to himself. And he is bitterly resentful of the implication that he took his trouble with a flip or cocky attitude.

“Does that make sense?” he demanded this morning. “Believe me, I am anything but cocky about this. It seems to me I have made the worst blunder that any human being could make. I have thrown away a promising future, a comfortable home; I have deeply injured the people I love best in the world.

“I know better than anyone else what I’ve done,” he continued. “I not only committed a serious crime, but I did a despicable thing in betraying a man who was kind and generous. I have spent many happy days at Phil Schmutzler’s summer home on the lake. I know the penalty, too, and I’m human enough to hope that I and the other two boys will be treated with some leniency, even though we deserve and will undoubtedly get prison sentences.”

Carbeau bit his lip to hide his emotion. He was asked why, and how, he had become a hold-up man. He flinched at the appellation.

“That’s a tough word, isn’t it? I can’t believe that I come in that classification. I don’t know myself how it happened. Justine is a nice sort of chap—and I’ve only known him intimately for about six weeks. He’s never been in any kind of trouble either.

“We just got to talking the other night about ‘easy money’ and—“ Carbeau looked away and finished his explanation with, “I’m so ashamed I don’t want to talk about it. Believe me when I say that the minute it was over and we were headed out of this city back to Ellwood, I would have given my right arm if I could have undone it and could have returned the money. But the other boys were involved and it was too late.”

He denied that he had any gambling debts to pay, saying that he didn’t gamble, “except on a very small scale,” and that his entire indebtedness wasn’t more than $100. In his possession when he was arrested was a check from his company for $300. He said that he never had lived beyond his salary and didn’t need the money.

The article included the information that, “since his arrest in Ellwood City, prominent citizens of his home town have telegraphed a desire to help Carbeau in any manner possible.”

The three men were sent to the Mansfield reformatory with sentences of 10 to 25 years. They were paroled after less than two years.

Vincent kept a low profile after his release. In 1947, he and his wife left town and moved to Boston. With his brother, he started a small business making wooden kitchen cabinets. He died five years later, at the age of forty. The announcement of his death was made by Edward Schmutzler—his wife’s father and, perhaps more importantly, Philip Schmutzler’s brother. His Ellwood City family let the event pass without comment in the local press, which suggests that I’m not the only person to have wished to exclude Vincent from the public record.


Once again, please go to Unbound to support the publication of the Small Town Noir book. I can’t do it without you!

James Grinnen, “Burglary”, 15 October, 1949

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The crowdfunding campaign for the Small Town Noir book continues! Please consider pledging to buy the book on the publisher’s website: And, if you decide you want the book, please tell people about it — the more people know about it, the more likely it is to happen!


More than one New Castle local has told me that they think the town looks like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. That’s not fair at all but, walking down certain desolate streets in the unluckiest neighbourhoods, you can see what they mean.

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(Photograph by Jeremy Michael Cohen)

What’s more, the area has a genuine and quite major connection to modern-day zombie culture, which comes up in the story behind the mug shot of James Grinnen.


James had been a local baseball hero. In 1947, two years before his arrest, he and another player, Robert Barber, had been invited to try out for the Boston Braves, spending a year in a farm team. The sports page of the New Castle News led with a story that said: “the players are well-known and liked by the fans here in Lawrence country, who will be pulling for them to make good in their first year of organized baseball. Their careers will be followed closely by their friends, who wish them the best of luck.”

It came to nothing. Neither was picked up. Their return to New Castle wasn’t mentioned in the press.

Sometime after midnight on the fifteenth of October, 1949, James parked his car alongside the Repman store in Wampum, just south of New Castle. Robert was with him, along with another young man, Robert Kirkwood:


They tried to remove a small window to get at the front door lock. That didn’t work, so they removed the large pane of plate glass from beside the door and entered that way.

They stole cigarettes, cigarette lighters, a $69 Admiral radio, four Eastman cameras, 12 billfolds, an electric razor, several safety razors, pen and pencil sets, two Westclox pocket watches, three wristwatches, several other watches. They didn’t open the cash register but lifted several dollars that were on the counter.

The three boys carried everything to James Grinnen’s car. He drove them to an abandoned limestone mine in the wooded hills outside town and they stashed the stuff there. They were arrested the next day and immediately confessed. They were sentenced to five to ten months in the county jail and paroled after four.

The mines provide the zombie connection. Between the 1890s and the 1940s, the Crescent Cement Company dug more than thirty miles of tunnels into the limestone hills south of New Castle. Thirty-five years after the night James and his friends hid the stolen items in the entrance to the mine, George A Romero—Pittsbugh native and, through his 1968 movie, Night of the Living Dead, the father of the modern zombie genre—shot his third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, there, using the tunnels as the location for the underground bunker where scientists and soldiers hide out from (and are eventually eaten by) the hordes of reanimated corpses that have overrun the world.

zombie tunnels wide

Watching the film now, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people in the hundreds of New Castle mug shots I’ve collected once mined limestone in those same tunnels.

zombies in the tunnels

And whether any of their descendants, unable to find any real work after the town’s heavy industries shut down or shipped out, ended up painting themselves blue and shambling around down there for minimum wage. I’m sure there’s a metaphor around here somewhere—whatever could it be?

James died in 1982, at the age of fifty-five. Robert Kirkwood died in 1999, at the age of seventy-six. I have no further information on Robert Barber, and I don’t have his mug shot. It’s still out in the world somewhere. Perhaps I’ll find it, one day


Please go to Unbound to support the publication of the Small Town Noir book. I can’t do it without you!

Larry Cardwell, “Desertion US Navy”, 8 January 1963

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The crowdfunding campaign for the Small Town Noir book continues! If you haven’t been to the book’s page on the publisher’s website yet, please have a look. Also, please consider sharing the page with anyone who might be interested in making the book a reality (and owning a copy themselves, of course). The more people know about it, the more likely it is to happen! Here’s the link again:


Larry Cardwell, an ordinary boy from New Castle, was arrested three months before his death. It’s strange to think that his mug shot was the last picture anyone took of him.

This video is two minutes long, and uses home-movie footage that was shot by Larry’s crewmates on the summer 1961 voyage of the USS Franklin D Roosevelt, the only tour that Larry completed. I’m grateful to for making the films available.

Please share it, and point people to where they can support a book of the true stories behind a unique collection of mug shots from one small American town.

Jack Robertson, “Drunk and Disorderly”, 9 December 1948

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The crowdfunding campaign for the Small Town Noir book continues! If you haven’t been to the book’s page on the publisher’s website yet, please have a look. Also, please consider sharing the page with anyone who might be interested in making the book a reality (and owning a copy themselves, of course). The more people know about it, the more likely it is to happen! Here’s the link again:

While the campaign is on, I’ll be posting some less typical pieces that hopefully shed an interesting light on the way the site has come to be, and what the mug shots mean to me.


Mug shots are tiny, ephemeral objects but they have an awful lot to say, as I suppose I’ve spent the past few years proving to myself.

Mostly, they speak to you through the gaze of the subject—the eyes that stare right into yours across the decades from one particular and very bad day in that person’s life. Some are ashamed, some miserable. You see expressions of regret, defiance, aggression, resignation—even laughter, from time to time.

And, of course, there are other fascinating details, some immediately apparent; others less so.

Jack Robertson doesn’t appear in the Small Town Noir book—there appears to be no information about his life—but I’ve always loved his mug shot, mostly because of his charming taste in knitwear.

jack robertson

When I first saw the picture, I didn’t know what to make of it. Was that a reindeer? The arrest (drunk and disorderly) was in December, 1948. Was he wearing an early version of the now traditional hideous Christmas sweater? With no other information to go on (his arrest wasn’t reported in the papers), I assumed he was just someone who really enjoyed the festive period—enough to dress up for the season and, on this occasion, get himself arrested.

Later, however, as I learned more about New Castle and the world that the people in the mug shots lived in, I realised that he’d been arrested right in the middle of Pennsylvania’s hunting season. Was that, therefore, a deer-hunting sweater? Perhaps Jack had been celebrating bagging a 300-pound buck when the police picked him up.

Later still, though—because research never ends—one of my periodic Google searches for “1940s deer sweater” brought up a vintage-clothing website that featured a photograph of the exact design he was wearing that night in 1948:

Catalina deer sweaters

It turns out that these sweaters were fairly exclusive items back then, worn by only the most fashionable young people. They were probably never touched by actual deer hunters, apart from unusually stylish ones. The company that made them was Catalina Sportswear, which sponsored the Miss America contest and was advertised by Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan.

Just like kids today wearing Lakers jackets and Yankees caps in any number of small towns across the world, Jack was simply associating himself sartorially with a glamorous lifestyle far removed from his everyday surroundings. He was dressed up for a good time. He hadn’t expected to be arrested. And it would never have occurred to him that strangers in the 21st century would be looking at his mug shot, trying to figure out what it might say about him.

But if it had, I’m sure he would have wanted us to appreciate that he was wearing such a stylish outfit.