The Convicts of McNeil Island Penitentiary

Mugshot March continues with a special double-header! Most people who follow this blog know of my great interest in mug shots, but these are special.

Near Steilacoom, Washington, on McNeil Island in the Puget Sound, a prison was opened in 1875. This was the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, with space for 853 prisoners.

Image from


McNeil was initially a territorial correctional facility, and it was run by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1904-1981. Washington State Department of Corrections took over then and managed the prison until it was permanently closed in 2011. Today, the island is home to the Special Commitment Center for “sexually violent predators.” As of 2017, there were 268 residents at the facility.

A cell at McNeil Island. Image from

During its 136 years of operation as a prison, McNeil had a lot of “star inmates”, including Vincent Hallinan, a presidential candidate; Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, famed depression-era gangster; Mickey Cohen, the 1930s L.A. gang leader; Robert Franklin Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz”; and the infamous Charles Manson. During the second world war, 85 Americans of Japanese descent were confined there after they resisted the draft. They were later pardoned by President Truman in 1947.

Despite the colorful personalities, the prison was a desolate place.


Cells at McNeil Island. Image from

The facility took a number of unusual mugshots during the late 1890s until 1906. They are some of the most unusual prison photographs taken in the United States.

The inmates were mostly photographed in pairs, but it’s not clear why. Possibly to be more economical with the film? Something about seeing two people in the picture makes them seem more real.

Often they were notably physically opposite but in most cases their prisoner numbers were very close so I imagine it was based on when they were brought in. A lot of the older guys looked like they had been born in prison. You just can’t imagine them anywhere else.

With a few exceptions, they wear the striped clothing that marks them out as prisoners, but as you’ll see there’s some variance between their appearance. Facial hair, especially mustaches, were far more common circa 1900 than in 2020. The prisoners are obviously posed–– I mean to say, these are not candid photographs.

Most photos had the names and inmate numbers of the persons in the photograph scrawled on the back. Often the writing is too sloppy to be fully legible, but I did my best! I believe the basic charge for each prisoner is available. Sometime I’ll go back and look but for now, the pictures can be appreciated for themselves.

Here are some of the great ones:

Frank Sems #1264 and Dan Carolon #1274


Ah Tai #1456 Lao Fon #1470


These two are an exception in that they are not radically different looking. In fact, they look a lot alike!

Ed Hanson #1238 James Moriarity #1236



This fellow looks like an old blues song. And the poor shape the picture is in really gives it some atmosphere. Would be a good cover for a blues album.

Charles Savage #141-05


The guy on the left reminded me a little of Eric Cantor, the former House Majority Leader. Could this be due to an underlying Freudian belief that most people in Congress should probably be doing time?

E.B. Covant #1301 and Thomas Martin #1701


I have really wondered about the guy on the left. If you notice, most of these prisoners are a little unkempt. But he must have spent quite a bit of his time on his hair, right? That’s elaborate!

Edward Nolan #1101 Warren Lucas #1087



Have you ever seen a more impressive mustache? The guy on the right must have felt completely inadequate about his facial hair.

Frank Doan #1324 Wm Hams #1325


George Sanfour Marshall Vince. Neither had a number



H.J. Maple #1306 Wm. Evans #1307


Henry Wallers #1318 Horace Chase #1321



I recognize the fellow on the left, J.E. Mann has a turn of the century look, but it’s kind of also a Creedence Clearwater Revival kind of look, too. Or am I crazy? He looks more 1970s to me.

J.E. Mann #1298 Joe Campbell #1299



J.J. Donohue #1519 James McConnell #1518


Jose Ciede (the guy on the left) has a frightening face.

Jose Ciede #1598 James E Harley no number


I am very curious about the man on the left, who was one of only two prisoners identified by one name only: Mamick. Unless it is just the way the light caught his eye, Mamick appears to have a glass eye or one blue eye and one brown.

Mamick #1524 Richard Cleveland #1522


Martin Burns #1589 Ed Marshal #1590

Several men had the phase “Legion to Indians” written beneath their photos. I wasn’t able to figure it out with a quick Google search, but if I find out later, I’ll update this to explain.

Mason Higgins #1279 Legion to Indians Mike MacKison #1278 Legion to Indians


As promised this is a double-header, so check out The Convicts of McNeil Island Penitentiary Part 2 here!



Leave a Comment

  1. I have been trying to find information on an inmate at McNeil Island. I have gone through all of the usual channels with no luck. Do you think you might have anything? Just curious.

    Liked by 1 person

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