One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.— Alphonse Bertillon
Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon (b. April 24, 1853, d. Feb. 13, 1914) has been attributed to having invented the mugshot. He was also a police officer and biometrics researcher who developed anthropometry which was beneficial to police officers in criminal identification.
More about Alphonse Bertillon
Bertillon attempted a number of jobs before being called to serve with the French army at the age of 22. After his service, and not having a high level of education, his father and medical professor, Louis Bertillon, influenced his hire into the Paris police.
Bertillon’s brother, Jacques, also became successful including stepping into his father’s role after he died. Bertillon lost his mother when she was only 34 from the effects of a fever she was unable to break.
Some may have considered Bertillon to be a bit aloof since he wasn’t gifted with social skills. He was intelligent though and presented himself well. While working as a clerk for the Parisian police, it was his goal to help promote a system that could expeditiously identify repeat offenders. With no system in place, a repeat offender could be categorized as a first-time offender.
Bertillon was passionate about anthropology. He developed a method of identification that became known as Bertillonage. Although repeat offenders could become identified, in time, this process was proven to be flawed when measurements were not taken accurately. Bertillonage involved taking a picture of the offender. Next would be the taking of certain body measurements and then the physical descriptions, all of which were written on a small card and would serve as the data to accompany the mug shot.
Although consideration was given to a host of different measurements of any one particular individual in comparison to one element of measurement such as head size, imagine two people having the same measurement across their foreheads. Ultimately, this method would be replaced by a more effective measure known as fingerprinting. Noteworthy, Bertillon didn’t just rely on body measurements; he also used other physical characteristics such as the color of eyes and hair, scarring, and personality factors.
Bertillon actually developed a good idea to create a system that could identify someone who might be a repeat offender which, again, was a large part of his goal. It was found, though, that a person’s measurements could change just through the process of aging so once fingerprinting came along, some of his fame was extinguished although he did incorporate the fingerprinting process into his method of identification.
Bertillon was part of a prestigious family and despite the fact there were other physicians in his family, Bertillon was never considered to be another diamond. However, that being said, through the use of his experience with the police department, he became a criminologist and this would bring him fame in another type of laboratory.
Bertillon died at the age of 61 in Switzerland. Although his method soon faded after fingerprinting was adopted, his ego didn’t embrace the replacement identification method. Regardless, Bertillon is still viewed as the one who broke new ground into criminal identification.
What is biometrics?
Biometrics is a wide array of the study of characteristics and traits of a human being for identification purposes. There are different types of biometrics dependent upon the need and they aren’t limited to the measurable characteristics; this can include DNA.
With computer science, this method is an identifier of sorts that reaches into a database of information. Through Bertillon’s research, he developed anthropometry which is further described below. This is a short definition as it involves a lot of particulars associated with identifiers.
The caption for the image reads:
The nose, as it cannot be described, is extremely important for identification. The types above, taking them from the left, show a low, narrow nose, a hooked nose, a straight nose, a snub nose, and a high, wide nose.
The illustration above is from an article entitled, The Speaking Portrait, from “Pearson’s Magazine,” published in 1901, which depicts Bertillon’s principles of anthropometry.
What is anthropometry?
Anthropometry is a technique used that would measure a person — the study of body measurements. In the 1880s, Bertillon opined that every individual would have different measurable physical characteristics.
The measurements also included other elements such as eyes and ears. This information was included in the stored cards into a filing system. Because Bertillon was able to identify over 200 offenders in 1884, other countries adopted his method. When this method was used in the United States, the centralized filing system of Bertillon cards was housed in Chicago.
The mug shot
Bertillon also developed the standard of an offender’s mug shot and taking of pictures of evidence prior to a crime scene being touched. Bertillon helped to shape other types of forensics practices, one of which involved examining whether a person’s signature on a document was forged or not known as handwriting analysis today. He also contributed to the subject of preserving footprints.
Before Bertillon’s method of measurements to try to identify or catch a criminal was used for nearly three decades before fingerprinting came into use and at least his method was a form of advancement as well as an improved system. His development of the mug shot, however, is still used today.
The above image describes John Welshouse, a sailor, who was arrested at the age of 29 for violating prostitution laws in New Orleans. This is an example of one of Bertillon’s “cards” which has all the indicators represented of measurements taken to secure Welshouse’s identity and obviously the mug shot image is of great benefit.
If Bertillon were alive today, he would be amazed at the technology and all the advancements made for the purpose of catching criminals.