Show & Tell: Wanted Posters from 19th Century Nova Scotia
Held by the Nova Scotia Archives, this scrapbook of over 225 wanted posters and pieces of related material, dating between roughly 1868 and 1888, gives us a snapshot of the way the international pursuit of criminals, missing persons, and stolen property functioned during the Victorian era. Police chiefs, detective agencies, and other interested parties sent fliers, letters, and lists of stolen goods to the Halifax Police Department during those decades; the material they collected came from Canada, the United States, and Europe.
Because the city was a gateway for criminals looking to escape from the United States and Canada to the Continent, and vice versa, the Halifax chief of police was kept busy pursuing criminals from other places. In one example of the reach of international fugitives, the Davies Detective Agency, of New York, offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of Oscar Walter (Ossip Ivanovich Walter), a forger all the way from Russia who was “supposed to be now in the American Continent.”
Some of the advertisements sent to Halifax were for goods, not for people, like one that warned law enforcement to be on the lookout for a large number of “Movements of Gold Watch Cases,” or this long list of “Watches and Jewellry” stolen from a father and son who had left their goods unattended in a hotel room.
Many of the fliers contain photographs, though often these were out of date, which meant law enforcement needed to include updates about criminals' appearances. An 1877 ad for Baltzar Henry Frithjoff Stalhammar (“generally known as Henry Stalhammar”) included a decade-old photograph of the criminal, and noted “Stalhammar may probably now wear his hair cut quite close to the head.”
The constraints imposed on law enforcement officers who had to rely on text rather than photography or fingerprinting (not widely used until the 20th century) resulted in some remarkably creative and evocative personal descriptions. Missing Missourian W.B. Jones, thought to be the victim of foul play or “laboring under some hallucination,” is described as having
small, dark hazel eyes and rather keen and searching, decayed teeth and snaggy, long prominent nose, redder than face, cancer wart on temple near the hair [think right side], rather stoop shouldered, has a shoving walk, leaning the upper body forward, crooks his knees in stepping as if weak in knees … Is a stock man, and has the appearance of a hard-fisted farmer.
The diversity of interested parties sending bills, lists, and posters to Halifax shows how ad hoc law enforcement operated in an era when policing was just undergoing standardization in the United States, Canada, and Europe. One “Wanted” poster was sent by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, offering a reward for the arrest of Henry Keesing, who “was charged with a felonious assault upon a little girl named Alice Walker, aged nine years.”
Header image: Nova Scotia Archives via Flickr // Public Domain