Inventor of the mug shot
April 24, 1853|
|Died||February 13, 1914
|Occupation||law enforcement officer and biometrics researcher|
|Parents||Louis Bertillon (father)|
Alphonse Bertillon (April 24, 1853 – February 13, 1914) was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who applied the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement creating an identification system based on physical measurements. Anthropometry was the first scientific system used by police to identify criminals. Before that time, criminals could only be identified by name or photograph. The method was eventually supplanted by fingerprinting, but "his other contributions like the mug shot and the systematisation of crime-scene photography remain in place to this day."
After being expelled from the Imperial Lycée of Versailles Bertillon drifted through a number of jobs in England and France, before being conscripted into the French army in 1875. Several years later, he was discharged from the army with no real higher education, so his father arranged for his employment in a low-level clerical job at the Prefecture of Police in Paris. Thus, Bertillon began his police career on March 15, 1879 as a department copyist.
Being an orderly man, he was dissatisfied with the ad hoc methods used to identify the increasing number of captured criminals who had been arrested before. This, together with the steadily rising recidivism rate in France since 1870, motivated his invention of anthropometrics. His road to fame was a protracted and hard one, as he was forced to do his measurements in his spare time. He used the famous La Santé Prison in Paris for his activities, facing jeers from the prison inmates as well as police officers.
In 1882 Bertillon decided to show a criminal identification system known as anthropometry but later also known as Bertillonage in honor of its creator. In this system the person was identified by measurement of the head and body, individual markings - tattoos, scars - and personality characteristics. The measurements were made into a formula that would apply to only one person and would not change. He used it in 1884 to identify 241 multiple offenders, and the system was quickly adopted widely by American and British police forces. Part of its benefit was that by arranging the records carefully, it would be very easy to sift through a large number of records quickly given a few measurements from the person to be identified. While it might not always give an exact match, it would allow one to narrow the pool of possible people and then to compare the person with a photograph.
The system was eventually found to be flawed, however, because often two different officers made their measurements in slightly different ways and would not obtain the same numbers. Measurements could also change as the criminal aged. It also could identify two individuals as the same person, unlike fingerprinting. Allegedly, in 1903, a man named Will West, arrested in Kansas, was found with anthropometrics to have been previously arrested, but fingerprinting—first used in 1892 to secure a conviction in the case of double-infanticide by Francisca Rojas in Argentina—seemed the only way to differentiate the two records.
The system was widely used by French police and in other European countries. In France, it was popular enough that it was widely used even after the advent of fingerprinting. One audacious member of the Bonnot gang sent police his fingerprints because he knew they did not have them, just his physical measurements.
Bertillon was a witness for the prosecution in the Dreyfus Affair in 1894 and again in 1899. He testified as a handwriting expert and claimed that Alfred Dreyfus had written the incriminating documents. However, he was not a handwriting expert, and his convoluted and flawed evidence was a significant contributing factor to one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice - the condemnation of the innocent Dreyfus - to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Bertillon was by many accounts regarded as extremely eccentric. According to Maurice Paleologue, who observed him at the second court-martial, Bertillon was "certainly not in full possession of his faculties". Paleologue goes on to describe Bertillon's argument as "a long tissue of absurdities", and writes of "his moonstruck eyes, his sepulchral voice, the saturnine magnetism" which made him feel that he was "in the presence of a necromancer".
Bertillon also standardized the criminal mug shot and the evidence picture. He developed "metric photography", which he intended to use to reconstruct the dimensions of a particular space and the placement of objects in it. Crime scene pictures were taken before the scene was disturbed in any way. He used mats printed with metric frames that were mounted along the side of the photographs. Photographs pictured front and side views of a particular object.
Bertillon also created many other forensics techniques, including forensic document examination, the use of galvanoplastic compounds to preserve footprints, ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering.
The near 100 year old standard of comparing 16 ridge characteristics to identify latent prints at crime scenes against criminal records of fingerprint impressions was based on claims in a 1912 paper published in France by Bertillon (Les empreintes digitales, Archives d’anthropologie criminelle, pages 36–52). The images of fingerprints which Bertillon published in his paper and upon which his claims were based were found later to have been altered and were forgeries.
Bertillon died February 13, 1914 in Münsterlingen, Switzerland.
Bertillon is referenced in the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which one of Holmes's clients refers to Holmes as the "second highest expert in Europe" after Bertillon. Also, in The Naval Treaty, speaking of the Bertillon system of measurements Holmes himself "...expressed his enthusiastic admiration of the French savant".
In the Arsène Lupin story The Escape of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, Lupin escapes by exploiting the same flaws in anthropometry that led to its eventual disuse. In A Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn touches on the system in Chapter 14, Part 1.
Bertillon is also referenced in the Caleb Carr novel The Alienist. The Isaacson brothers, who are detectives, mention that they are trained in Bertillon system. The Bertillon Measurements are also mentioned in the Ross MacDonald Novel, The Drowning Pool.
- As reported in, "A Fingerprint Fable: The Will and William West Case". http://www.scafo.org/library/110105.html
- Kirsten Moana Thompson, Crime Films: Investigating the Scene. London: Wallflower Press (2007): 10
- Rhodes, Henry T.F. Rhodes (1956). Alphonse Bertillon: Father of Scientific Detection. New York: Abelard-Schuman. p. 27.
- Ginzburg 1984, p. 105
- Maurice Paleologue, My Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case, Secker and Warburg, 1957 (page 197)
- Fingerprint Identification Not Scientific Nor Infallible & Based On Fraud March 8, 2013
- Ginzburg, Carlo (1984). "Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method". In Eco, Umberto; Sebeok, Thomas. The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce. Bloomington, IN: History Workshop, Indiana University Press. pp. 81–118. ISBN 978-0-253-35235-4. LCCN 82049207. OCLC 9412985. Ginzburg describes Bertillon's role in the development of forensic science. This essay is a discussion of the conjectural paradigm as evidenced by the methods of Giovanni Morelli, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes in the light of Charles Sanders Peirce's logic of making good guesses or abductive reasoning.
- The Adventure of Criminalistics (Dobrodružství kriminalistiky)
- Criminocorpus: Alphonse Bertillon and the Identification of Persons 1880-1914
- Central Missouri State University: Criminal Justice: Alphonse Bertillon
- Example of Bertillon Measurements in practice
- Instructions signalétiques by Alphonse Bertillon
- Ancestral Criminal Records - includes Bertillon cards.