Thursday, 16 May 2013


Mug shot, Crime scene photography, Bertillonage, Anthropometry
The man himself - posing for one of his own mug shots


Noun. Late 19th century.
[French bertillonnage, from Bertillon]

The system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, etc.,
 invented by French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914).

In most Western countries, we live in a privileged age in which authorities wield a wide range of scientific techniques in order to identify and apprehend criminals. It wasn't always like that of course, and one of the great pioneers of applying science to law enforcement was the eccentric French police officer Alphonse Bertillon.

Coming from a family of statisticians (although himself of humble education), Bertillon was dismayed at the rather slip-shod record keeping of the police. Information kept on criminals was laughably scanty - often little more than a name and a photograph could be used to identify repeat offenders. In his spare time, Bertillon therefore set about developing an anthropometric system of measurements that he believed would greatly assist in the identification of recidivist criminals. The system worked on the theory that the aggregate of approximately ten core measurements would be unique to the individual. Once recorded, a person could be easily identified should he come into police custody again, simply by matching his unique combination of measurements to those already on file. As a means of identifying repeat offenders, it was a potent weapon.

The accuracy of bertillonage, as it came to be known, was impressive and from 1882 it was quickly adopted by police forces in France, Britain and the United States as an effective tool in identifying recidivist offenders. However, flaws in the system soon surfaced, although these were more to do with its implementation than the system itself. To work effectively, bertillonage required exacting measurements, a level of accuracy that was simply beyond the ability of most police officers who were not formally trained in anthropometry. Different officers would produce different results by employing slightly different methods, a problem which served to undermine the entire system - once a mistake had entered into the complex filing system, it was almost impossible to remove it. Lastly, the core measurements that bertillonage relied upon were discovered to not be as immutable as previously thought, as various measurements did change as a person aged.

Alphonse Bertillonage, Anthropometry, Detective, Detection, Law enforcement, Forensic science
Some of the measurements taken to construct a profile

A large part of bertillonage's demise, however, was simply the advancement of other sciences, particularly that of fingerprinting which was being adopted by the late 1890s. While it was only marginally more accurate than correctly applied bertillonage, it was considerably easier to implement, requiring both less equipment and less training. Crucially, fingerprinting is also an effective weapon in apprehending first time offenders, as prints left at a crime scene can be matched to any suspects, regardless of whether it's a first-time offence or not.

Despite the short lifespan of bertillonage (less than 20 years), it and its application left a considerable legacy in the realm of law enforcement and anthropometric studies generally. For example, the importance of accurate and proper record keeping across police forces was highlighted (an area that still causes considerable problems today), and its methodical and objective approach did much to enhance both the credibility of the police and the public's trust in them. The ubiquitous mug shot is also a relic of bertillonage, as is the routine recording of other identifying features such as scars, tattoos and birthmarks, etc. Bertillon also instigated considerable advancements in crime scene photography, including using grids in-shot to scale both the area being photographed and the objects in it.

Lastly, it's noteworthy that Alphonse Bertillon had the respect and admiration of the world's greatest fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, and therefore by extension his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes' client refers to Bertillon as the "highest expert in Europe" with regard to the application of science to detection (although Holmes is preferred for the case as a "practical man of affairs", despite only being the "second highest expert"). Despite Holmes' displeasure at being ranked second in this instance, in The Naval Treaty, Watson recounts a conversation with Holmes about Bertillon's system of measurements and Holmes' "enthusiastic admiration of the French savant." From both Holmes and Conan Doyle, this is high praise indeed.


  1. I think it's awesome how this one man could make such a drastic improvement to what used to be, well, a game of luck, basically. It might not have been perfect, but at least he pushed the whole identification-situation in the right direction. One person really can make a difference.

    1. I think so, Bibi. He and his system were definitely a modernising factor. One source stated that he endured quite a lot of ridicule from both police and criminals when he first started developing the system in his spare time - I couldn't verify that so I didn't include it in the article, but it's not difficult to believe that that would be true.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. yeah, lovely report ed. I like what you said about criminals. by the way, when you get a mo, check out my blog :

    2. I don't know if this is a spam comment or not! If it is, it's not a very effective one (although not looking like spam is a good thing). Hmm. Ah well - six of one, I suppose.