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April 5, 2020

The Mugshot of Goldie Williams, aka Meg Murphy, Nebraska, 1898

Arrested on January 29, 1898, in Nebraska, USA, the police notes tell us that Goldie Williams, also known as Mag Murphy, stood just 5 feet tall and weighed 110 pounds. She refused to unfold her arms and stop making this face for her mugshot.

(Image via Nebraska History Museum)

She listed her home as Chicago and her occupation as a prostitute. According to her arrest descriptions, her left index finger was broken and she had a cut below her right wrist. Williams sports an elaborate hat with satin ribbons and feathers. She also wears large hoop earrings. She was arrested for vagrancy.

According to Risa Goluboff (dean of the University of Virginia School of Law), the police during this time had the authority to arrest pretty much anyone for vagrancy:⁣
“Two features of vagrancy laws made them especially attractive. First, the laws’ breadth and ambiguity gave the police virtually unlimited discretion. Because it was almost always possible to justify a vagrancy arrest, the laws provided what one critic called “an escape hatch” from the Fourth Amendment’s protections against arrest without probable cause. As one Supreme Court justice would write in 1965, vagrancy-related laws made it legal to stand on a street corner “only at the whim of any police officer.”

Second, vagrancy laws made it a crime to be a certain type of person—anyone who fit the description of one of those colorful Elizabethan characters. Where most American laws required people to do something criminal before they could be arrested, vagrancy laws emphatically did not.”


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