QUAINT MISBEHAVIN'DECADES-OLD PORN PUZZLE BARES PHOENIX'S PURPLE PAST

Pssst! Wanna buy some dirty pictures?
About 1,400 of em?
Actually, dirty pictures were the last things on the minds of George Hall and Bob Martinique as they browsed through a Prescott antique store one weekend last October. But upon learning that the two men were photography buffs interested in antique cameras and projectors, the store's proprietor smiled knowingly. "I think I have something just for you," he whispered as he produced a metal strongbox from beneath the counter. "This is special--it's not for everyone."

By the time the Tucson pair left the store, Hall and Martinique were the proud owners of a porndora's box containing more than 1,425 erotic negatives, most of them reportedly shot during the latter half of the 1920s.

Evenly divided between interior and exterior shots, images on the negatives ranged from cheesecake poses and fairly innocuous nude figure studies to hard-core shots depicting lesbian acts and group sex. According to the antique dealer, the negatives had been found inside a wall during remodeling of an old saloon on Prescott's Whiskey Row.

Hall and Martinique's boxful of photographic dirty secrets begged plenty of questions. Who had shot the pictures? Why had they been stashed in the wall of a Prescott bar? Once hidden, how did the torrid trove manage to go undetected for nearly 70 years? And, lurid though they were, was it possible the technically crude photos had historical value, like those photographer E.J. Bellocq had taken of the World War I era prostitutes in New Orleans' Storyville district?

The answer to at least one of those questions became apparent after the pair adjourned to Martinique's Tucson darkroom. Although the Prescott antique dealer claimed the negatives showed prostitutes who'd once worked in that northern Arizona town, the prints Hall and Martinique made soon proved otherwise.

Plainly recognizable background elements in the decades-old images revealed that most of the pictures were shot not in Prescott, but in Phoenix.

Sex and sin under the saguaros? Hotcha!
"Our first reaction was that maybe we'd find photos of Winnie Ruth Judd or one of her victims," chuckles 42-year-old George Hall, referring to the celebrated trunk murderess of the period who was recently immortalized in a book by former New Times staffer Jana Bommersbach. "From what I gathered from reading the book, it certainly seemed within the realm of possibility that Winnie--or certainly someone she knew--could very well have been mixed up in a pornography ring."
Hall and Martinique soon determined that their photos had no direct connection to the sensational Judd case. Instead, the freelance musicians claim all available evidence strongly points to a Phoenix electrician who died nearly 30 years ago.

The first clue to the photographer's identity sprang from the fact that the majority of the pictures were shot with a Kodak C-3 Autographic, a camera that allowed shutterbugs to "autograph" their negatives with a metal stylus. Evidently unable to resist the lure of the gimmicky feature, the mystery lensman dutifully etched the signature "Allison" into the borders of many of his naughty negatives.

Another major clue was provided by the distinctive paper with which "Allison" chose to wrap those negatives--stationery and envelopes, now yellowing, from the Vinson-Carter Electrical Company, a long-defunct Phoenix electrical contractor.

Armed with the additional information that the photos had been taken in the late 1920s (dated car license plates are visible in several photos), Hall and Martinique began scouring public records in hopes of connecting the mysterious "Allison" with the electrical company. The duo hit pay dirt in city directories of the era, discovering that a man named Henry C. Allison had indeed worked at Vinson-Carter, a job he held on and off for 24 years, beginning in 1917. After working as an electrician at various other companies around the Valley for the rest of his life, Allison died in 1965, at age 65, in the V.A. Hospital in Long Beach, California.

Allison's electrical background plays an important role in the theoretical scenario linking him to the cache of erotica. Because the fast-speed films that would eventually revolutionize indoor flash photography were not then on the market, Hall and Martinique believe Allison's electrical know-how enabled him to rig up the relatively sophisticated studio-style lighting necessary to photograph the many interior shots in the collection.

The pair offers up another connection tying Allison to the racy relics. Tracking the electrician's life through telephone books, obituaries and other public documents, the partners were able to determine that during the early 1960s, several members of the Allison clan left Phoenix. Significantly, some of them (including Henry's mother) migrated to Prescott--the very same city where Allison's erotic collection turned up in an antique store nearly 30 years later.

The antique dealer who claimed the pictures had been found in a Whiskey Row saloon when he sold Hall and Martinique the negatives may have been repeating a fallacious cover story. Given the facts, it's far more likely that someone--perhaps a distant relative--ran across the negatives somewhere along the line and decided to sell them to a dealer, little realizing he was exhuming an old skeleton from the family closet.

@rule:
@body:Thanks to the Tucson natives' diligent detective work, the bones in that skeleton have been reassembled for the first time in nearly 70 years.

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