Meeting Laura

It was the hat that did it for me…

I first met Laura Scott on January 1, 2012 on the internet. One of my hobbies is collecting prison-related artifacts like old postcards and photographs. Over the past few years, I have built up a collection of police mug shots. I was searching for more mug shots in an online store when I came across Laura Scott’s face on a Bertillon card. Bertillon Cards were named after the French law enforcement officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered criminal identification techniques such as anthropometry (measurement) and the mug shot itself. The cards usually include key descriptors about criminal suspects as well as a mug shot photo. In her photograph, Laura, who is wearing an ornate hat, stares impassively ahead. Across her neck, a tag reads “23187.”

The following key details were listed on her Bertillon card:

Criminal Name: Laura Scott
Reg No: 23187
Age: 40
Birthplace: Alabama
Height: 67.8 inches
Weight: 150
Hair: Black
Eyes: Brown
Complexion: Black
Race: Negress
Occupation: Dressmaker
Crime: Pt. Larceny & Prior
Sentence: 5 years
Measurements taken: August 8, 1905

I immediately purchased the mug shot and card for seventy-five dollars. I never look into the backgrounds of the individuals on the mug shots that I collect. This time, however, something about Laura Scott called out to me. I was fascinated by this black woman with the beautiful hat; she seemed to be looking right at me through the camera lens. I became curious about Laura. Who was she and how did she find herself coming into contact with the law?

Since I am based in Chicago, I relied on the internet to begin my search for any information about Laura Scott. I initially didn’t find very much: only a small mention in the Los Angeles Herald about a “negress” named Laura Scott who was sentenced to 1 year in San Quentin for grand larceny in 1905.

I was encouraged by this to think that other newspapers might also have covered the same 1905 incident and perhaps in greater detail. Before continuing with a more comprehensive newspaper search though, I turned to hoping to learn about Laura’s origins. I knew from the Bertillon card that she was born in Alabama and I could estimate her date of birth based on the age that was listed on that card. This led me to a couple of possibilities. Next, I wanted to locate primary source documents so I turned to the California Archives to access Laura’s prison records. I requested court records from the archives of the Los Angeles Superior Court and asked for jail documents from the L.A. Sheriff’s department. I also sought information from the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. Finally, I hired a research assistant in Los Angeles who could scour the microfilm of local newspapers at the Central L.A. library.

My inquiry into Laura’s life story provides important information about black women in early California history and about women prisoners at the turn of the century. I couldn’t have known how colorful a life Laura Scott led when I first started searching the internet for more details about her.

This incomplete story of Laura Scott’s life is primarily based on information from her law enforcement & prison records, court documents, and accounts in newspapers. Living with Laura over the past few months has been frustrating, sad, joyful, but always interesting.

I now invite you to spend a little time with this incredible 19th-century woman.