Years before Allan Pinkerton became the official bogeyman of American labor, he established the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in New York City.
In the mid-1850s, Pinkerton was the first to systematically compile a photo gallery of scamps, scoundrels, wastrels, stickup men and assorted known criminals on the lam. He made a point of including the latest photos and information about those suspects who eluded arrest, including their aliases and last known associates. When this system was adopted by the New York Police Department decades later, it became known informally as the "rogues' gallery."
Meanwhile, high-end criminals who owed their political careers to the patronage machine of former Tammany Hall ward boss William M. "Boss" Tweed weren't worried. They escaped inclusion in updated editions of "Professional Criminals of America." They may have been criminals, but they were politicians accustomed to a certain amount of public deference.
Fast forward to today. Things have changed considerably. Any chance of dodging the modern iteration of the rogues' gallery has disappeared, especially for politicians. Those already convicted or just accused of public corruption can expect to see their mug shots on the front page of the local newspaper.
The shaming of pols thought to be dirty, especially in Pennsylvania, has become a blood sport. Their former privilege as politicians has completely evaporated except in one area -- if they were public servants of a certain magnitude when they were booted out of office, their portrait will always be entitled to hang in a place of honor in Harrisburg.
In a fascinating piece in Monday's paper, Post-Gazette Harrisburg correspondent Kate Giammarise reported that painted portraits of several former House and Senate leaders now in prison on a variety of corruption-related charges haven't lost their spots on the walls of the state Capitol:
"There's Bill DeWeese, speaker of the House in 1993 and 1994, a Democrat now serving a 2 1/2-to-5-year term at Retreat State Prison in northeastern Pennsylvania for a corruption conviction," the story said.
"John Perzel, a Republican who served as speaker from 2003-2006, also has his picture hanging in the Gallery of Speakers' Portraits; he's now in the minimum-security Laurel Highlands prison in Somerset, serving a term of 30 months to 5 years.
"On the Senate side of the building, that chamber's former president pro tempore, Robert Mellow, is also remembered with a portrait, despite having been sentenced to 16 months in federal prison on a public corruption charge.
"Despite the portrait gallery resembling a rogues' gallery in some places, the pictures likely aren't going anywhere," the story continued. "There doesn't seem to be any organized movement to have them removed, and legislative officials see them as part of Pennsylvania history -- for better or worse."
While the temptation to feel a certain amount of outrage is natural, legislative officials insist that the portraits shouldn't be interpreted as an endorsement of these men. Although paintings are usually meant to convey honor, these portraits are merely an acknowledgment of the brute historical record: Fallible men who looked like this once served the commonwealth.
That's a point well taken. There's no reason to empty the halls of the state Capitol of every portrait of every corrupt politician. If such a purge were enacted, the walls would be stripped bare. Very few would survive, using even the most generous ethical or legal criterion to separate the crooks from the merely morally compromised.
Having said that, I do believe a critical rethinking of how Pennsylvanians acknowledge the brute historical reality of so many crooked politicians is long overdue.
Instead of allowing those who have disgraced their offices to continue to be represented in such dignified paintings on the walls of the state Capitol, perhaps replacing those realistic renderings with a few painted in a cubist or surrealistic style would be more appropriate.
I'm only half-joking when I suggest that portraits of fallen leaders like Perzel, DeWeese and Mellow be replaced with Warhol-inspired soup cans to represent the banality and pettiness of their corruption.
Perhaps a portrait of the average Pennsylvania taxpayer rendered in the style of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" would be the kind of painting we could all relate to.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.