Photo Mysteries

Masked Mystery

What do you think is going on in this photograph? Hughes Company Photograph Collection, unknown photographer (possibly Gaither Scott), MdHS, PP8-585 / Z9.584.PP8

What do you think is going on in this photograph? “Detective room, Police Department,” Hughes Company Photograph Collection, unknown photographer (possibly James W. Scott), ca.1910, MdHS, PP8-585 / Z9.584.PP8

Last month we solved a longstanding photograph mystery that we never expected to solve, that is until we rolled up our sleeves and actually tried. Modern digitization technology, more precisely the ability to zoom deep into a photo or negative to see details previously unavailable to the naked eye, coupled with searchable newspaper databases make solving these puzzles much easier today. But this time out, we have a longstanding photo mystery that we can’t solve on our own. Having exhausted every resource we could muster, from searching historic newspaper databases to asking historians and journalists (we even tried asking federal archival investigators who visited us during the Landau theft case), we still can’t say with any degree of certainty what’s going on in the disturbing photo above. Yet its imagery evokes such strong feelings, conjuring up images of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynching, we can’t give up trying to understand it—so we turn to crowd sourcing.

Why are two of these men not wearing masks?

Why are some of these men not wearing masks? Is that a telephone between the shoulders of the two men in the middle? Would there have been a telephone in a court room?

Immediately several questions come to mind: What is happening to this man? Why are the men wearing masks? Are they police officers? Are they a jury? Stare a little longer and other questions arise: What year would this be? Why are two of the men seen above not wearing masks? Why does the African-American man seem so calm?

Why so calm, or is it diginified?

Not a drop of sweat. Despite what’s going on behind him, this man does not appear worried. How do you interpret his expression?

Here’s what we do know

This photo is labeled “Detective room, Police Department.” However, in the archival world, you quickly learn not to take random descriptions as gospel. It’s part of the Hughes Collection*, one of our largest collections of photographs. James F. Hughes, whose first appearance as a commercial photographer in the City Directory was in 1877, founded the company. He owned the company until his widow sold it to an employee, James W. Scott, in 1903. The Hughes Company primarily did work for Baltimore area businesses, corporations, governmental agencies, and occasionally private individuals.

MdHS’s records indicate that this photo was taken sometime around 1910. Several pieces of evidence corroborate this date. From the lighting fixtures to the suits and hats the men are wearing, this appears to be the early twentieth century, pre-WWI. Additionally, the original medium for the image is an 8 x 10 inch glass plate negative. Glass negatives preceded film negatives. They first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, but went the way of the dinosaur in the early twentieth century as less fragile celluloid film was introduced. The one item that could answer the “when” question is just a bit too out of focus to help: a newspaper left on a table and opened to an advertisement page:


The date is not visible on this newspaper in the foreground, but we can see that Joel Gutman & Co., which operated from 1852 to 1929, offered mens shoes from $2.79 – $4. These seem to be pre-1920s prices.

Given the approximate date of the photograph, we can safely assume that James Scott, or someone who worked for him after he took over the Hughes Company, took the picture. We know that the company commonly did work for the City of Baltimore. What we don’t know is why a Hughes photographer was at this location on this particular day. There’s also the matter that this room looks far more like a courtroom than a police detective room. Was the photographer there to take promotional pictures for the police department or court system? The shot seems somewhat staged, as if the men were assembled quickly for the shot. Note that three of them are not wearing masks, two on the left and one on the right in a doorway. Anonymity was not crucial for all of the men in the picture. There are fifteen men wearing the very distinctive masks. Could this be a jury with three alternates? Are they witnesses? A staged demonstration might also explain the calm look of the man on the riser. It’s also worth noting that he’s a fairly handsome man and zooming in closeup reveals no sweat on his brow. Additionally he appears to be wearing a wedding ring. What does any of this mean?

One final clue to point out: If this is a detective room or a court room, how do we explain the object behind the head of the man to the right of the man on the riser? What little we can read of it says, WM. J. C. DULANY CO. PUBLISHERS. Is it a calendar or broadside? The photo vexes us at every turn.

Why would this poster hang in a police department or court room? Detail

Another clue? This is an interesting place to hang a calendar or broadside in a police department or court room. And aren’t these masks peculiar?

Educated guesses

One prominent local historian** suggested that this image represents an initiation ritual for the first black detective of the Baltimore City police force. This seemed a reasonable guess, except that the date range of the collection is 1910-1926. Considering that glass negatives were not used much after the nineteen-teens and that we had never heard of an African-American detective in segregated Baltimore this early, we were left wondering.

The theory was quickly taken down by a veteran journalist who visits the library frequently. “There were no black officers on the force until 1937. Violet Hill Whyte was the first one,” said our source. ”African-Americans weren’t even put into uniform until 1943,” he added. The first African-American men hired by the Baltimore Police arrived in 1938. They were Walter T. Eubanks Jr., Harry S. Scott, Milton Gardner, and J. Hiram Butler Jr. These men were not allowed to wear police uniforms for another five years. Even if this were a photo from as late as 1926, which is highly unlikely, it predates the arrival of African-Americans on the force by twelve years.

Left with more questions than answers, we turn to you, our readers. What do you think?

Please share this, leave comments, or send us an e-mail. (Joe Tropea)

This story has been updated.
* There are two sections of the Hughes Collection. The first section, known as PP8, covers dates ca. 1910-1926. This section of the collection consists mainly of vintage glass plate negatives with some vintage prints and film negatives. The second section of the Hughes Collection, called the Hughes Studio Photograph Collection, is known as PP30, and covers dates ca. 1940-1956.
** The names of those who took guesses on the photo prior to this writing have been kept anonymous.


32 Responses to “Masked Mystery”

  1. Is that the stomach/coat of a man on the far left? If so, why was this one person all but cut out of the shot? and why is the man on the riser looking directly at him?

    (Or am I just looking too hard and it’s nothing?)

    Posted by Ed | 07. Feb, 2013, 1:46 pm
  2. His hat is off in respect to the man he is facing (chief detective?) who is dressed differently that the others. Does his lapel pin offer a clue as to a group/club affiliation? Are the bottoms of the masks pieces of parchment paper? Very curious scene..

    Posted by Brad Williams | 07. Feb, 2013, 2:39 pm
  3. My first thought is that this is the initiation of the first black into one of the numerous fraternal organizations that were around during the early 20th century. Not a Masonic lodge, for sure, but perhaps one of the others like the Oddfellows.

    Posted by Christopher Conroy | 07. Feb, 2013, 3:13 pm
  4. For me personally it kind of reminds me of a slave auction? I guess? Because I think I read somewhere that they used to have them stand on platforms so the people there could have a better view if they were interested. Maybe a mock one? And maybe he was so calm because he was supposed to represent the strength of enslaved people? But yet there’s one man on the far right that actually looks African American from what I can tell. But in all the close up pictures I’ve seen of this, he’s not in any of them. He always gets cut out. Or maybe it was supposed to be a political statement about or against the Klan. Because the 2nd Klan was founded in 1915 I believe. And their main problems were Jewish people, Catholics, and the first Great Migration of African Americans between 1910-1930. Although not many of them went to Baltimore, they did go to the surrounding areas, mainly New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and such. I don’t know, I’m just saying my thoughts and I’m sure other people have thought the same thing. But it’s just an idea.

    Posted by Karlee Anderson-Vargas | 07. Feb, 2013, 3:34 pm
  5. Here’s my guess based on your presented information.

    The photograph is a promotional picture of how they used to do line-ups or suspect identification in the detective department at that time. Before 1 way glass. It’s obviously staged and all the men are probably detectives and the gentleman on the platform is a worker in the building.or something. The men in masks represent what they did for witnesses to secure their anonymity and the men not in masks represent the detectives that would be in the room. They get the witnesses in the room, then parade the suspects across the dais so everyone can get a good look.

    Posted by Chris | 07. Feb, 2013, 4:16 pm
  6. At first glance it looks like an initiation to some degree in a fraternal/masonic like group. Maybe the men without the masks are set to be “official” witnesses and the others must vote their approval but cannot be seen. The Black man at the center of this is of some means, not so much based on his clothing, but more on his posture and air of confidence. This type of demeanor is usually produced by religion but not christian. Probably Islamic or something originating from the east. I would guess he is not a local as well. I also think there is significance with the guys with their arms folded behind their backs, the man with his hands in his pockets, and the one with his hands folded in front of him.

    Posted by clinton green | 07. Feb, 2013, 4:27 pm
  7. Those appear to be Masonic masks and the platform the black man is standing on appears to be removable given what appear to be bolts or fasteners at the two visible corners.
    What other photos have that room in them and how POSITIVE are you that this photo was generated in Baltimore? What about Philly or New York that the company may have done business for?

    Posted by James C. Bailey | 07. Feb, 2013, 5:00 pm
  8. Possibly some sort of criminal line up? Though the masks do look very ritualistic

    Posted by Vernon | 07. Feb, 2013, 5:03 pm
  9. its a line up? the guy is accused of a crime like pickpocketing

    Posted by Nick Nichols | 07. Feb, 2013, 5:11 pm
  10. Contact Maureen Taylor the Photo Detective

    Posted by ^5! From The Arkansas Ozarks | 07. Feb, 2013, 5:41 pm
  11. According to a 29 July 1908 article in the Baltimore Sun (page 12), the Baltimore Detective Department initiated a “mask system” that “enables detectives to examine crooks without being recognized.” The description is of masks “of the ordinary white dominoes with white muslin covering the lower part of the face,” worn by 20 detectives; the detective captain is described as unmasked. The article describes how a suspect inspected in this manner was placed on a platform with a brass rail. Sherlock Swann, president of the police board, is credited with bringing the idea from New York. I would guess that the photo is a staged display of the how the system is conducted.

    Posted by Bill Lefurgy | 07. Feb, 2013, 5:43 pm
  12. Undercover cops? They still do this to an extent. . . .

    Posted by alfredmontez | 07. Feb, 2013, 7:40 pm
  13. Could it be an identification line-up? In the sense that there were several witnesses to a crime, which saw a black man do something, and then they were formally asked to check if this particular man is the perpetrator. Since they were witnesses they would want to have anonymity, as to make sure they were not then targets of the crime. The men who are not masked could be the clerks/policemen who do not care if they are anonymous.

    Posted by Iulia D. | 08. Feb, 2013, 3:38 am
  14. The note on top of the newspaper seems to have written something like: GOT A COL(L)…

    The word seems to be not too long, due to the space of the paper. I can’t seem to find any matching word which would make sense. Here are words which begin with COLL:

    Collaged Collagen Collages CollapseCollardsCollaredCollaretCollatedCollatesCollator Collects Colleens Colleger Colleges Collegia Colleted Collided Collider Collides Colliers Colliery Collogue Colloids Colloquy Colluded Colluder Colludes Colluvia Collying Collyria Collage Collard Collars Collate Collect Colleen College Collets Collide Collied Collier Collies Collins Colloid Collops Collude Collar Collet Collie Collop Colly

    The piece of paper looks to be worn down, so to me it seems like something that is used time and time again, like it would be, for example, with a card that says ‘Exibit A’.

    Could it be that the newspaper contains the run down of the crime that was committed, and it there in case people want to check something?

    Posted by Iulia D. | 08. Feb, 2013, 3:50 am
    • I think it says “GOT COL 1″ – perhaps it is for those in column 1? I think the line-up is a good theory thus far, based on the photographic evidence

      Posted by Valerie | 08. Feb, 2013, 11:17 am
  15. The unmasked man on the riser in the background appears to be giving direction to the “suspect” – “Turn to the Left, Right, Face us.” etc. The phone is probably to call in the next suspect in holding. I doubt this would be a secret ritual – they probably wouldn’t have photographed and archived it – plus – that door to the right would probably have something opaque covering the huge pane of glass if it was some oddfellow/masonic thing.

    Posted by Chris | 08. Feb, 2013, 10:56 am
  16. I don’t think the accused looks calm. I think he looks resigned and impassioned. Culture dictated a demeanor of indifference as survival. Show no emotion when arrested. I suspect it is an actual interrogation that was documented for the fanfare of it. It may have been a locally elevated crime of serial burglary etc. Something that wouldn’t make the national news or maybe even the larger papers, but certainly would have been a local precinct’s point of pride to solve. At the turn of the last century, many legal proceedings — in addition to all sorts of public gatherings — were photographed. Don’t be misled by the formality of the clothes either. This was an era wherein people dressed up to go grocery shopping, especially in the African American community of the time because propriety and dignity were additional self-protection behaviors. If one was called to the precinct, one would dress as respectably as possible. That meant Sunday clothes. Even if it was a spur of the moment arrest, remember only laborers didn’t wear suits to work. There were plenty of African American clerks etc. in Baltimore who would have worn a suit to their place of business. Lastly, the time it took to take a photograph meant that all parties involved would have to stand stock still, so the formality of the image is more a result of the science of photography at the time than the staging of a scene. All that being said, the above poster who tracked down the interrogation proceedings details is probably dead on. I only quibble with the staged aspect.

    Posted by Kirsten | 08. Feb, 2013, 11:48 am
  17. I am the author of numerous books on crime and law enforcement in the American frontier, and also a long time collector of antique photography connected with that topic. As soon as I saw the image, I noted that it was obviously a police show-up (like a one-man lineup) with the witnesses wearing masks to protect their identities. The clothing dates from about 1910, not 1900 and not 1920 as stated in the story. The photo is posed, what we would call a reenactment today. Then I scrolled down and saw the post from Bill Lefurgy who specifically identifies the photo from a contemporary 1908 Baltimore newspaper account. Mr. Lefurgy is absolutely correct. The real issue here is why the image, according to the story, “evokes such strong feelings, conjuring up images of Jim Crow, the Klan, and lynching,” Of course, the image has nothing to do with lynching. Our country’s historical treatment of African Americans is bad enough without embellishment. Failure to understand the past does not help us understand the present. John Boessenecker, San Francisco, CA

    Posted by John Boessenecker | 08. Feb, 2013, 12:55 pm
  18. This photograph appears in the book, History of the Baltimore Police Department, 1774-1909 by Clinton McCabe. It can be found on page xvii in a supplement that updates McCabe’s original work, which covered up to 1907. The caption reads “The white masks” inspecting a prisoner at detective headquarters. The photo had to have been taken after January 1 1907 and before January 1 1909.
    Regarding the masks: detectives never allowed their face to be shown in public. McCabe wrote this at the end of the updated chapter:
    “At the request of the Board of Police Commissioners the photographs of all members of the Detectives Department published in this revised edition have been stamped with a gilt mask. This is but following the policy of the Commissioners that the faces of the men who are engaged in police secret service not be familiar to the general public….”

    So the masks were used to hide the identity of the detectives. Those not wearing masks must no be part of that department. And, yes, in the book all of the photos of detectives have a gold stamp over their face.

    The Maryland Department at the Pratt Library/Maryland’s State Library on Cathedral Street has copies of this book that can be viewed by the public at any time. Ask for this call number: Md. XHV8148.B21M2

    Posted by Jeff Korman, Maryland Department manager | 08. Feb, 2013, 3:56 pm
  19. I don’t have any more clues than those I’ve read above. I just know that this photo gives me a sickening feeling. I also have heard that the 1920s was a decade of many lynchings in this country.

    Posted by Mariann Regan | 09. Feb, 2013, 4:09 pm
  20. Maybe a criminal “line up” of sorts. The black man is suspected of a crime; the men with the masks are witnesses to a crime who don’t want the potential perp to see their faces. Could it be this is how line ups worked prior to mirrored glass?

    Posted by fred | 09. Feb, 2013, 10:09 pm
  21. I think it’s a line up.

    Posted by William J Earley | 13. Feb, 2013, 9:47 pm
  22. Given the time period and the lack of recording devices, is it possible that the black gentleman is having to identify the voice of one of the men in masks? What if something happened in which he only heard a voice but couldn’t see a face, and to avoid incorrectly identifying a man by appearance alone the other gentleman wear masks to conceal their faces but not their voices? Perhaps this is the most optimistic possibility for a legal situation.

    I think it is very likely that the platform has wheels underneath because the platform does not completely meet the floor. There appears to be about an 1/4 inch clearance. The bolts may just act as stoppers to keep the platform from moving much. Based on the scratch marks on the floor that appear to form in curves or circles, I’m guessing that platform was moved around frequently, either on purpose or by accident. I cannot tell if the chairs have wheels, but the supports do not appear to be high enough off the floor to have wheels. Nevertheless, maybe the scars in the floors are due to the chairs. It is definitely a well-used floor badly in need of resurfacing.

    Are the windows on the right leading to the outside or merely making activities visible between multiple rooms? The depth of the window boxes means either that the windows lead to the outside or are located in main supporting walls of the building. The door in the foreground on the right appears to be closing in a box of some sort which has windows. As part of the box, directly visible through the door window is a sill running perpendicular from the wall to meet the door frame. This section appears to contain another window because that section of glass is getting reflections from multiple directions. Is this box big enough to glass-in just one or two people or an entire jury, for example?

    The wall at the back is only 3/4 or 4/5th’s high and appears to divide another area where another chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Perhaps it was added after the building was in use? Why does the chandelier in the middle of the room have globes covering the light bulbs but the chandelier in the back is globeless? Back then light bulbs were prone to exploding and the globes would provide protection. I’m not even sure the chandelier in the back is turned on, but if it is lit the bulbs are not providing that much light. It also appears that the photographer’s light is providing more light than the chandelier in the middle of the room. The outline of the bulbs are visible. The light from behind the camera appears to be larger than a simple flash because it spreads across the back of the room fairly well. I would think such a photograph with that kind of lighting would have to lead to a staged situation, not likely a photograph taken impromptu.

    As for the gentleman at the back and the telephone (I definitely think it is a telephone), you cannot see his feet/legs through the legs of the men who are masked. Instead, there appears to be a divider with inset wood panels, possibly a work desk or greeting desk. However, there appears to be a pole affixed to the floor, similar to the poles on the moving dais. Could that literally be one pole supporting a horizontal fixed bar in front of a judges bench? On the right side of the left door in the background, there appears to be a hole in the trim on the right side of the doorway. Could this hold a flag, for example? A judges bench would require a flag somewhere. The pole in the front may simply be a holder for a flagpole, as well.

    Posted by John | 14. Feb, 2013, 6:28 pm


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