Alphonse Bertillon

• Alphonse Bertillon was born in France in 1853. His father was a noted physician and statistician who taught him methodology.
• As a young adult, he went to work as a records clerk in the police department in Paris. One of his duties was to tediously copy down the physical descriptions of everyone who had been arrested that day. He realized this method was useless for tracking career criminals or identifying those who had been arrested multiple times, sometimes using multiple names. At the time, criminals could only be identified through eyewitness descriptions or by photographs that were kept in disorganized piles.
• In an attempt to remedy this situation, Bertillon revolutionized forensic police work over the course of his lifetime.
• His first idea was to come up with a list of systematic measurements of the human body. Each perpetrator would be carefully examined and the description and measurements of their body would be recorded: how wide was the mouth? What shape were the lips? What was the distance between the ears? How long were the eyebrows? How long were the arms? How big were the feet? All in all, eleven different measurements were recorded on cards, along with eye color, hair color, height, and skin tone. The process was dubbed “bertillonage.” In 1884 alone, French police used Bertillon’s system to help capture 241 repeat offenders, which helped establish the system’s effectiveness.
• Although many police departments adopted this method, the process was bulky and time-consuming. The criminal’s appearance tended to change over time. If two people measured the same body, they were likely to come up with slightly different measurements.
• Next, Bertillon added a standardized set of photographs of each criminal: a front view, and a side view. These were the first mug shots, named for the common slang term meaning “face.”
• This successful development encouraged Bertillon to consider other ways photography could be used in solving crimes. He asked police officers to photograph crime scenes before they were disturbed, and invented a tall tripod so that pictures could be taken from a high viewpoint to encompass the entire room. He created a “metric grid” that could be laid over the space to give a better idea of the space between objects and their dimensions.
• Bertillon also pioneered methods of preserving footprints and championed handwriting analysis. He pushed to develop ballistics. He developed a contraption called a “dynamometer” that measured how much force was required when breaking and entering.
• In 1888 the Department of Judicial Identity was created for the Paris Prefecture of Police, and Bertillon became its head. By the mid-1890s, he had become an international celebrity, known far and wide for his publications, his exhibitions, and his speeches. Police departments worldwide adopted his methods.
• When fingerprinting was first developed in India in the 1890s, Bertillon initially fought hard against it. Eventually he saw the usefulness of it, and advocated adding fingerprints to the police repertoire of methods.
• Bertillon died on Feb. 13, 1914, having lived long enough to see the methods he developed revolutionize police work around the globe. The royal commissioner of police in Dresden, Germany wrote “Paris [was] the Mecca of Police, and Bertillon their prophet.”

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