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.
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 two 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 Korea. Those decades also happen to correspond to the classic era 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.Diarmid Mogg