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Old St. Albans arrest records provide window to the past

Chip Ellis
Capt. James Agee of the St. Albans Police Department pores over old arrest records from the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s. City police are getting ready to transfer the old paper files to computer.
ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- Crooks have changed a lot in 60 years."People used to dress up to get arrested," said Capt. James Agee, a 23-year veteran of the St. Albans Police Department.Recently, Agee began going through old city arrest records, part of the process of converting boxes full of paper into computerized files. The files, some going back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, provide a glimpse into life several decades ago.Judging by the arrest records and accompanying photographs, Agee was struck by some of the differences between criminals in the 1950s and today.For one thing, those who were arrested were almost always employed, presumably hard-working men and women who ended up on the wrong side of the booking desk."Here's the Maytag repairman," said Agee, flipping through old arrest files that typically include a fingerprint card listing a suspect's vital information, a photograph and a typewritten sheet of paper. "He got arrested."Ross Edward Lawrence, an Air Force crewman, was arrested in 1953 in full uniform. He listed his occupation as "bomb operator."Basil Clifton Starcher, a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, was arrested in July 1953. His mug shot shows Starcher in a jacket and tie, the left sleeve of his suit jacket neatly pinned over the stump of his left arm. Police officers aren't necessarily the best spellers. A notation on Starcher's arrest record says his left arm is "amputated at the elbo."Agee noticed that most of the people arrested in the 1940s and '50s were well-dressed. Earl Franklin Jinks was picked up in 1951 in a double-breasted pinstripe suit, the wide collars of his shirt spilling audaciously over his lapels."He's stylin' and profilin'," Agee said.Elizabeth Burn Hammel, born in 1890, was arrested in 1953. "Very nice dress," Agee said, looking at her mug shot. "And pearls.
"And drinking."That, at least, is familiar. "One thing that hasn't changed is the bulk of your arrests are alcohol-related," Agee said.By far the most common charge in the old files is intoxication. Many are repeat offenders.
"This guy who was born in 1878," Agee said, looking at an arrest card. "He's still drinking 80 years later." Another man, Charles Graham, picked up yet again in 1948, had an arrest record going back into the 1930s.The arrest records also provide a glimpse into the social attitudes of the time.Most of those arrested in the 1940s and '50s were white. In the parlance of the day, black suspects were sometimes listed as Negro and sometimes as "colored." Sometimes no reference was made to race at all.And Agee noticed that officers listed the complexions of a huge number of suspects as "ruddy.""I don't know what that means," he admitted.Not everyone arrested 60 years ago was picked up for drunk driving or public intoxication.
Ronald E. Lawrence Jr., a mechanic at a local car dealership, looks oddly pleased with himself in his 1953 mug shot. His arrest record lists the charge simply as "fornication.""I'm not sure of the circumstances," Agee said. "Maybe there was a whole ring of them. I don't know."Reach Rusty Marks at or 304-348-1215.
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