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Mugshot of Bertillon
24 April 1853|
13 February 1914 (aged 60)|
|Occupation||law enforcement officer and biometrics researcher|
Alphonse Bertillon (French: [bɛʁtijɔ̃]; 24 April 1853 – 13 February 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.
He is also the inventor of the mug shot. Photographing of criminals began in the 1840s only a few years after the invention of photography, but it was not until 1888 that Bertillon standardized the process.
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 15 March 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.
Bertillon also created many other forensics techniques, including 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 nearly 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 Bertillon published in France.
Bertillon died 13 February 1914 in Paris.
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 document (known as the “bordereau”). 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.
Using a complex system of measurements, he attempted to prove that Dreyfus had disguised his handwriting by imitating his own handwriting as if someone else was doing so, so that if anyone thought the bordereau was in Dreyfus’s hand, he would be able to say that someone else had forged his writing. Both courts martial evidently accepted this, and Dreyfus was convicted. The verdict of the second court martial caused a huge scandal, and it was eventually overturned.
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” that made him feel that he was “...in the presence of a necromancer.”
Bertillon pretended that his graphological system was based on mathematical probability calculus. A later expertise undertaken in 1904 by three renowned mathematicians, Henri Poincaré, Jean Gaston Darboux, and Paul Émile Appell, concluded that Bertillon's system was deprived of any scientific value and that he had failed both to apply the method and to present his data properly. With this key evidence against Dreyfus debunked, he was finally acquitted in 1906.
The specific anthropological technique practiced by Bertillon is often referred to as the Bertillon system. This system consisted of five initial measurements: head length, head breadth, length of middle finger, length of the left foot, and length of the cubit. Along with these measurements, Bertillon used photography, now known as a mugshot, to complete this system of record. These methods of identification were combined into a system for law enforcement officials to access information and images quickly.
Although the system was based in scientific measures, it was known to have its flaws. For example, it may not have been able to accurately apply to children or women, as it was mostly designed for men who had reached full physical maturity and had short hair.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries black women who were working as sex workers in Minneapolis, Minnesota became known as “alley workers.” The Minneapolis Police Department followed the Bertillon System as a means to identify and document the crimes of these alley workers. The system soon became used as a tool to police and categorize these women.
In order to bypass the system many black women would use aliases instead of their real names in order to obtain agency over their criminalization. The most common name that was used as an alias was “Mamie,” which was also the alias used by Mamie Knight, who was the only surviving mugshot of an alley worker during the department’s period of using the Bertillon System. Her mugshot is currently located in the St. Paul police department archives.
Bertillon is referenced in the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which one of Holmes’ 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.”
The Bertillon Measurements are also mentioned in Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu-inspired The Emperor of America (Cassel, 1929, p. 61), the Ross MacDonald novels The Drowning Pool and "Blue City" (p. 30), and Yves Fey's mystery Floats the Dark Shadow.
Bertillonage is mentioned in Chapter 4 and in an appendix of the mystery "The Assassin in the Marais" by Claude Izner.
Bertillon appears in Eric Zencey's novel Panama.
Bertillon is referenced in the 1965 short story, REPENT, HARLEQUIN!" SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN, by Harlan Ellison.
Bertillon is the main character of the third episode of Czech TV series The Adventures of Criminology called “Bertillonage”.
Bertillon was also referenced in a series called Elementary. Season 2, Episode 17 (Ears To You).
Bertillon is lampooned in “The Dreyfus Case: IV,” by Finley Peter Dunne (“Mr. Dooley”), reprinted in “Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of His Countrymen” (Robert Howard Russell, pub., 1899), pp. 268, ff.
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