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Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914)

Alphonse Bertillon was a Parisian policeman. He wanted to improve descriptions of suspected criminals, and hoped a good identification system would quickly identify repeat offenders. He believed that people who were liable to reoffend could be identified through physical characteristics, and that people with certain characteristics were more likely to be criminals.

Bertillon was a friend of the surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca, and borrowed Broca’s ideas about measuring physical differences. In 1881, Bertillon developed techniques and instruments to measure individual features that would not change, for example eye colour, the shape and angles of the ear, brow and nose, and the distances between them. He also developed ways to reliably record other physical data about the body, including identifying marks such as tattoos. He collected vast quantities of data and used the new technology of photography.

By 1883, Bertillon had made 7336 measurements and identified 49 repeat offenders. By 1884 he had found 241. Bertillon described his system as anthropometry, literally ‘measuring humans’. The system became known as ‘Bertillonage’, and it eventually incorporated body measurements, a verbal description, a photograph and fingerprints. The system relied on progressively sorting records of people with matching characteristics until an individual was identified.

Bertillonage was initially popular. However, from the 1890s it was superseded by fingerprinting techniques from India. Frances Galton championed their use in forensic science. Fingerprinting proved far simpler for identifying individuals because each person has a unique fingerprint.

Bibliography

A Bertillon La Photographie judiciaire, avec un appendice sur la classification et l’identification anthropométriques (Paris: Gauthier-Villars et fils, 1890)

M Matsuda, The Memory of the Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

C Sengoopta, Imprint of the Raj: How Fingerprinting was Born in Colonial India (London: Macmillan, 2003)

Glossary:

Anthropology

The social, cultural and geographical study of humans and humankind.

Anthropometry

The measuring of body parts so that comparisons can be made. The aim is to measure normal and abnormal development. In the past, it has also been used in attempts to measure racial difference.