Welcome to New Castle, PA

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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 towns in America, but all that’s gone now.

At the beginning of the 20th century, New Castle was a boom town — its population almost tripled between 1890 and 1900 as thousands of immigrants from Europe and across America arrived to work in its tin plate mills, steel factories, ceramics works, foundries and paper mills. The depression of the 1930s hit the town as hard as anywhere else, but world war 2 and the Korean war kept its manufacturing base going. The population peaked at 48,834 in 1950, but it was downhill from there. Today, around 28,000 people live in New Castle. The unemployment rate is twice the national average.

The mug shots on this site date from the 1930s to the 1950s — from the temporary slump of the great depression to the terminal slump that followed the Korean war. Those decades also happen to correspond to the golden age of American crime cinema, from the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930s to the noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, and the faces in the photographs wouldn’t look out of place in the background of any thriller from Little Caesar in 1931 to Touch of Evil in 1958.

I write another blog, The Unsung Joe. It’s about unknown extras and bit-part players in old Hollywood films — the kind of people who played the waiters, the cab drivers, the passers-by in the street. It’s surprising how much you can find out about them, about their hopes for their careers, about their disappointments, their tragedies and their joys. Then again, they lived in Hollywood at a time when it was the centre of the imaginative life of most of the western world, and anything that happened there was reported in gossip columns, magazines and newspapers wherever English was spoken.

That was never the case with New Castle. However, the New Castle News — the local paper, still going today — diligently recorded the goings-on in the town and made sure that its readers knew who had visited whose house for dinner, who had been sent to war, who had drunkenly crashed their car, who had gone to jail. The record is patchy, of course, but it’s possible to piece together some of the stories of the people who were arrested all those decades ago and, in doing so, catch a glimpse of what life was like in that long-gone town.

25 Comments

  1. Jim Villani says

    Love that map. I have a copy. Its point of view is essentially the house and neighborhood in which I grew up.

    • I just bought a copy, too — four feet long, which is great for picking out the details.

  2. Andy says

    I just spent about 2 hours in your site – amazing to see these people preserved in time. Each one with their own story.
    Great website.

    • Thanks Andy. Sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon! (Although maybe you should spend the evening reading something uplifting and cheerful, just to balance things out…)

  3. Sarah Di Thomas says

    I just found your blog and feel like I have struck gold! Thank you for saving these orphaned files and posting them!

      • Sarah Di Thomas says

        I was born & raised in New Castle but no longer live there and found a link to your blog on a New Castle forum. Of course I am checking it out to see if my relatives are here (haha!), I think I am distantly related to a couple people I see listed so far :). I appreciate the research you have done to reconstruct the well written stories.

        Obviously you don’t have to answer this question but I am curious because your profile says you are in Scotland, (I have worked in libraries for a long time, not a stalker!) were you just visiting/passing through and found the discarded files? Sadly, it does not surprise me that they just tossed them when they should have shredded them but I’m glad they didn’t have that foresight. II will share your blogs with a film buff friend, good luck with your book!

  4. Its seems New Castle was, is and probably always be a crime ridden S#!% hole.

    • You’re a local, I assume! It’s got its problems, just like anywhere else, but I reckon it’s one of the most interesting places I’ve ever come across. You just have to dig deep…

  5. Frances says

    There is crime on every community on earth Guy. Please try to keep your tasteless comments to yourself.

  6. Maggie Miller says

    WOW that is all I can say!! I found my fathers name in one of the stories. I was 5 months old when my father died and never knew much about him. I sure was to surprised to see armed robbery linked to his name. I spent hours reading on this site today.

    • Are you sure it was your father? I hope it wasn’t too unpleasant a surprise to see him appear in one of the stories. Almost all of my information comes from old newspapers, so I’m only as accurate as they are. Still, if the paper said he was on trial for armed robbery, he probably was… I hope you liked the other stories!

      • Maggie Miller says

        Thanks for replying….yes, I’m positive it was my father. There was no picture (I don’t know why) but it was associated with another mug shot and according to the story they both got 1 year and were out in 6 months. I would love to read the articles that were associated to this story.

  7. Jill Lanich says

    I have been reading your blog over the course of several days, and now find myself at the end (or beginning, depending on where you start!). I grew up in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, not that far from New Castle and also worked in New Castle for a couple of years in a doctor’s office on East Washington Street. Reading stories that included familiar places (New Wilmington, Pulaski, Farrell) has been fascinating. You told so many interesting facts about New Castle that I had never heard. And the faces! I’ve always been captivated by old photos, wondering who they were, what kind of life did they have, who did they love and who loved them? You helped bring these photos to life here with your research. There is still much we can imagine about the faces in the pictures, but this blog gives us some insight into a time long gone. Thank you for taking the time to tell the stories.

    • That’s the exact effect I was hoping the stories and pictures would have. Thanks for writing, Jill. I’m glad you found the site interesting.

  8. exexalien says

    Just came here via dangerousminds.net, where there is a post about this site. Have never been to Pennsylvania and (as far as I know) have no personal connections to anyone written about here, but I am finding these stories absolutely fascinating. Thank you for your research and taking the time to do this.

  9. jason says

    As a New Castle native, I felt the need to both check for family names, and also to thank you for the site! Also, as one commenter above noted, crime has always had it’s fair share of New Castle. Some of our earlier history notes our town as one of the major stepping stones for “Organized Crime” as it moved westward across the country. I would be curious to learn how many of these were more deeply involved in organized crime, and how many were intentionally mislabeled/misfiled to remove any mention of organized crime. Sadly, our town has had quite a few notorious titles over the years, although at this time I can’t provide any clear citation… at one point, we were “The Best City in America to Get Away with Murder” and “The Arson Capital of the East.” While I can’t speak to Getting Away with Murder, I can certainly say that Arson is alive and well in New Castle. As a decendent of Welsh and French immigrants in the ca. 1900-era, and also as a result of the family ties built since then, I do recognize quite a few names and family resemblances! Simply engrossing!

    • Thanks for writing, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the site! I keep hoping I’ll come across a mug shot with definite Black Hand connections so I can write something about that part of the town’s history, but I haven’t yet. One of the upcoming mug shot stories is about a guy with connections to what the newspaper calls “Pittsburgh gambling interests” — not too difficult to figure out what they mean by that — so drop by again!

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