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Hey, Baltimore — Feel Like Solving a Mystery?

2 Written by: | Friday, Feb 08, 2013 10:26am

Z9.584.PP8 Detective room, Police Department

The Maryland Historical Society Library has uncovered a disturbing photo — or, at least, an apparently disturbing photo. A crowd of masked men in dark suits and bowler  hats cluster in the corner of the room, staring at a black man who’s standing on a kind of podium. The atmosphere is one of anticipation, of something on the brink of happening — but what? The MHSL archivists have no idea. “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?” a MHSL representative writes on their blog. And because their own experts (and a few that they imported) haven’t been able to solve the mystery yet, they’re turning to the public. So, what do you think? See any clues?

The photograph, which is entitled “Detective room, Police Department” is from around 1910. The MHSL blog enumerates the mystery further:  the police department looks like it’s set up to evoke a courtroom, and there’s something deliberate about the shot that makes it seem staged, rather than a spontaneous exercise. Fifteen men wear the creepy masks; three don’t. The single black man on the podium looks calm; maybe that’s because the whole thing is a staged demonstration of some kind, so nothing is really at stake.
detail3_pp8-585
So far, one Maryland historian has suggested that the image depicts the induction ceremony for the first black detective of the Baltimore City police force; unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case because there were no black officers in the city until 1937. (Digression:  did you know that Baltimore’s first black police officer was a woman?) There’s one note in the comments section of the post that offers a tempting solution, but we’re not convinced. If you have an idea, let the MHSL know here.

Leave a Reply

  • Jeff Korman, Maryland Department manager

    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

  • Rachel Monroe

    Wow, Jeff! Mystery definitively solved. I hope you let the MHSL know.



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