The Maryland Historical Society Library has uncovered a disturbing photo — or, at least, an apparently disturbing photo. A crowd of masked men in dark suits and bowler hats cluster in the corner of the room, staring at a black man who’s standing on a kind of podium. The atmosphere is one of anticipation, of something on the brink of happening — but what? The MHSL archivists have no idea. “What is happening to this man? Why are the men wearing masks? Are they police officers? Are they a jury? Stare a little longer and other questions arise: What year would this be? Why are two of the men seen above not wearing masks? Why does the African-American man seem so calm?” a MHSL representative writes on their blog. And because their own experts (and a few that they imported) haven’t been able to solve the mystery yet, they’re turning to the public. So, what do you think? See any clues?
The photograph, which is entitled “Detective room, Police Department” is from around 1910. The MHSL blog enumerates the mystery further: the police department looks like it’s set up to evoke a courtroom, and there’s something deliberate about the shot that makes it seem staged, rather than a spontaneous exercise. Fifteen men wear the creepy masks; three don’t. The single black man on the podium looks calm; maybe that’s because the whole thing is a staged demonstration of some kind, so nothing is really at stake.
So far, one Maryland historian has suggested that the image depicts the induction ceremony for the first black detective of the Baltimore City police force; unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case because there were no black officers in the city until 1937. (Digression: did you know that Baltimore’s first black police officer was a woman?) There’s one note in the comments section of the post that offers a tempting solution, but we’re not convinced. If you have an idea, let the MHSL know here.