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Alphonse Bertillon - Page 2 of 2

In 1891, in an effort to identify deserters, the United States Army adopted Bertillonage.  When a recruit signed-up, he was measured, and if he went over-the-hill, his Bertillon card was place in a special file.  The system also identified men who tried to join the Army under false names to avoid being arrested and prosecuted for crimes. 

Back in 1880, when Bertillon, the assistant records clerk, was waiting for Chief of Police Louis Andrieux to resign and clear the way for the adaptation of his identification system, a Scottish physician named Henry Faulds would begin a series of events that twenty-five years later would mark the end of Bertillonage and destroy its creator.  While in Japan working as a medical missionary, Dr. Faulds wrote a letter to the journal Nature in which he described the ridged furrows on the tips of fingers, and how impressions of these ridges, left on things touched, might have value as crime scene clues.  Dr. Faulds was fascinated by the possibility of identifying, in absentia, a criminal by his crime scene finger marks.[4]   In the mid-1880s, Dr. Faulds, having devised a way to make latent fingerprint impressions more visible through the application of a fine powder, began advocating the adoption of fingerprint identification bureaus comprised of collections of  inked arrestee fingerprint sets.  By now Bertillon, aware of Dr. Fauld’s writings on the subject of fingerprints, did not consider him a threat to his system of criminal identification simply because there was no way to classify and file arrestee fingerprint cards. Bertillon would later add thumb prints to his Portrait Parle as another physical marker in the category of tattoos, moles and scars.  Eventually he would see the value of latent fingerprints as crime scene clues, and would be the first to photograph a bloody latent at a murder scene.

In 1892 Bertillon submitted a report to the chief of police in which he described how people of different professions left telltale fingerprints at the scenes of crime.  He noted, for example, that seamstresses made finger marks bearing puncture scars, and glass workers with finger marks reflecting specific types of callous impressions.  Being impractical and limited in its application, this was not one of Bertillon’s best ideas, but it did reveal his understanding of the value of individualistic, crime scene evidence capable of linking suspects to their offenses.

Unbeknownst to Bertillion, the publication of a little book called Finger Prints in 1892 would mark the turning point in the history of criminal identification.[5]    Francis Galton, an English biologist and physician related to Charles Darwin, published the world’s first text on fingerprint identification, a book in which Galton foresaw fingerprints as ultimately replacing Bertillonage.  Since Galton had only been able to group fingerprints into three basic patterns, there was no way to file and retrieve a particular set of offender prints.  As long as Galton couldn’t solve the classification problem, fingerprints were not a threat to Bertillon and his system.  Galton, however, had set in motion an idea that would eventually destroy anthropometry and its creator.

In the late 1800’s, France was a haven for anarchist groups and the location of related acts of terrorism.  On March 11, 1892, terrorists dynamited the home of a Paris judge who had presided over the convictions of a group of anarchists the year before.  The judge escaped injury but was in danger of future attacks.   Under merciless grilling, a harmless schoolteacher with anarchist connections broke down and identified the bomber, a five foot four inch, bearded terrorist named Ravachol.  The police suspected that a man who met that description, a man named Francois Koenigstein, might be Ravachol.  At the time Koenigstein was wanted, by the police in several French towns, for murder, theft, burglary and grave robbery.  When arrested in Paris in 1889 for theft, a case that did not result in his conviction, Koenigstein had been measured by Bertillon.  Therefore, if the man who called himself Ravachol was indeed Koenigstein, and was arrested for any crime, the police would learn of his true identify and the extent of his criminal activity.  Moreover, if Ravachol, the political terrorist was in fact a common murderer and thief, this revelation would deal the anarchist movement a serious blow.

In April, 1892, Ravachol struck again, bombing an apartment house that was the home of a government prosecutor.  The prosecutor was not injured but four other tenants of the building were seriously hurt.  Ravachol claimed credit, and the anarchists newspapers portrayed  him as a hero.  Two days later, the police, after receiving a tip that the terrorist was in a particular restaurant having breakfast, stormed the establishment and took him into custody.   Bertillon took the suspect’s measurements, checked  his files for a match, then announced that the man who claimed to be the famous terrorist Ravachol was in fact the common criminal,  Francois Koenigstein.

The terrorist arrested as Ravachol, notwithstanding Bertillon’s declaration regarding his true identify, denied that he was Koenigstein.  He was tried, however, as Koenigstein and was convicted of  the Paris apartment bombing.  The judge, believing that the defendant was in fact Ravachol, gave him a light sentence because he feared retaliation by Ravachol’s terrorist followers.  When Koenigstein went on trial for murder, a killing in Lyons, France, the judge in that case, unafraid of terrorists, sentenced him to death.  It was at that point that the man who called himself Ravachol admitted to being Francois Koenigstein.  He confessed to another murder, several thefts, and grave robbery.   Just before the guillotine took off his head, Koenigstein-Ravachol yelled, “You pigs, long live the revolutlion!”[6]

The Koenigstein-Ravachol affair made headlines all over Europe, added luster to Bertillon’s fame, and spread the adoption of anthropometry to other nations.  In 1892, India became the first country outside of France to adopt bertillonage nationwide.  Five years later, during which time 250,000 Indians were measured, the country would switch to fingerprinting.  Bertillonage was not a failure in India, it was just that fingerprinting, as a system of identification, was simply less involved and more efficient.

Bertillon published, in 1893, his treatise, Textbook of Anthropometry, a thick volume full of photographs of noses, ears, and various shaped heads; as well as detailed instructions on how to measure the different parts of the body and transfer this data and other vital information onto the portrait parle.  There were also photographs of the various measuring tools and other Bertillonage equipment.  Bertillon also provided instructions on how to correctly photograph arrestees, the proper lighting and so forth,  and how to process and file the prints.  Mindful of Francis Galton’s book on fingerprinting, published a year earlier, Bertillon took the opportunity in his text to disparage the fingerprinting technique as a messy, cumbersome task beyond the ability of the ordinary policeman.  For a man who had a difficult time describing his system to Chief Andrieux thirteen years earlier, Bertillon’s book was an impressive achievement.

In 1893, the year Bertillon’s book came out, a forty-six-year-old Austrian lawyer and judge named Hans Gross published the world’s first textbook on the subjects of criminal investigation and general forensic science.  Entitled System Der Kriminalistic, the book dealt with the techniques of criminal interrogation, the weakness of eyewitness testimony, and general crime scene investigation.  Gross was particularly interested in what could be determined about the murder weapon from the fatal bullet, and how spilled blood at the scene of the crime could be useful in reconstructing the event.  Although Gross was trained as a lawyer and not as a scientist, he had studied, on his own, physics, photography, microscopy, botany and zoology.  He believed that detectives should be trained to apply science in the investigation of crime.  Having first heard about Bertillonage in 1888, Gross began taking measurements of prisoners, and in his text strongly recommended that Austria adopt anthropometry.  Ten years later a Bertillon bureau was established in Vienna.

Gross’s book was translated into English is 1906 as Criminal Investigation, the only text of its kind published in America for almost thirty years.  As a result, Gross’s influence in the development of scientific crime detection in America was considerable.  The book has gone through five editions, and was still in print well into the 1960s.[7]  Today, Alphonse Bertillon and Hans Gross are considered the co-fathers of forensic science.

In America, the year that Gross’s landmark text was published,  the National Chiefs of Police convention was held in Chicago, the home of the nation’s first police Bertillon bureau.  It was at this 1893 meeting that Chief Roger O’Mara of the Pittsburgh Police Department presented a formal resolution that a national identification bureau, based on anthropometry, be established by the organization.  This centralized criminal records repository would be temporarily housed at the Chicago Police Department.  Chief Robert McClaughry advised the group that his agency would provide the space, the measuring tools, and the personnel to operate the bureau. Bertillon clerks from all over the country would come to Chicago, be trained, then return home to set up their own bureaus.  Whenever an arrestee was arrested, say, in Pittsburgh, two Bertillon cards would be created, one for the local department and the other for the centralized file in Chicago.

On October 20, 1897, the centralized bureau, with an annual budget of $3,000, went into operation under George Porteous, an experienced Bertillon clerk with the Chicago Police Department.  Notwithstanding financial problems, administrative squabbling, and difficulties with Bertillon clerks whose work was sloppy, the National Bureau of Identification limped along until it merged with the FBI’s national fingerprint bureau in 1924.[8] 

Following the publication of his text in 1893, Alphonse Bertillon was at the height of his career in terms of fame and respectability.  Now calling himself Doctor Bertillon, he began to think of himself as an expert in all manner of criminal identification, including the identification of handwriting.  In 1894 he would get involved, as a questioned documents examiner, in a celebrated case that would tarnish his reputation and damage his credibility.  He would make the mistake common to successful people, he allowed his ego to take him into a field for which he was not fully qualified.

In October of 1894, Bertillon was visited by officials of the French War Office who were investigating what they believed was a case of treason.  A week earlier a captain in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus had been arrested on the charge he had furnished military secrets to the Germans.  The only hard evidence in the case was a one-page, handwritten memorandum, and five French military documents, sent to the German military attaché who had carelessly discarded the handwritten cover letter.  The spy had written the note, referred to as the “bordereau,” in ink on both sides of extremely thin paper, the kind used for foreign correspondence in order to save weight.  In several places the writing had been obscured by the text which showed through the opposite side of the paper.  The document had also been torn into several pieces.

Bertillon had no knowledge of the case beyond what he had read in the paper, but when the War Office officials assured him that Captain Dreyfus was the spy, he agreed to take large photographs of the documents for comparison with the captain’s known handwriting.  This is surprising because Bertillon had once declared that he didn’t include signatures on the portrait parle because he didn’t consider a person’s handwriting unique.  When he compared the bordereau with samples of the captain’s writing, he found gross dissimilarities but nevertheless concluded that Dreyfus had written the incriminating document.  When asked to provide the rationale for his opinion, Bertillon confused everyone with a complicated and convoluted explanation that didn’t make any sense.  Bertillon said that Captain Dreyfus had written the bordereau by piecing together tracings of letters  from his own writing, his brother’s writing, and his wife’s.  It was his theory that Dreyfus himself had imitated his own hand to make it look like someone was trying to frame him by forging his writing.  Prosecutors couldn’t make any sense of Bertillon’s report, but as long as he was implicating their suspect, weren’t particularly bothered by their incomprehension. 

Captain Dreyfus was brought to trial, in a military court, in December of 1894.  In addition to Alphonse Bertillon, the prosecution put several other handwriting witnesses on the stand who testified that the defendant had written the bordereau.  These witnesses were either outright charlatans or unqualified people eager to please the prosecution and be on the same side of a case with the renowned Dr. Bertillon.

To counter the prosecution’s handwriting case, the defense put their own handwriting witnesses on the stand.  These people, however, had not been given the opportunity to examine the original document.  Instead, they had looked at an engraved facsimile of the bordereau.  As a result, the best they could do was to assert that the engraving and the defendant’s known handwriting were not the same.  The most prominent handwriting witness for the defense, Alfred Gobert, an expert employed by the Bank of France, testified that the questioned and known writings were of  “the same graphic type but presented numerous and important disparities which had to be taken into account,” concluding that the bordereau could have come “from a person other than the defendant.”[9]

The handwriting in the Dreyfus trial, on both sides of the issue, had little to do with scientific document examination.  From this point of view, it was one of the most absurd celebrated trials in the history of forensic science.  The military court, without one piece of solid forensic evidence, found Captain Dreyfus guilty of treason and sentenced him to life in prison.

Although Captain Dreyfus appealed his conviction, it would be five years before he would be granted a new trial.  By this time public opinion was behind him, and several qualified questioned documents from England and America took the stand and testified that he was not the writer of the bordereau. Once again Alphonse Bertillon confidently testified that Dreyfus had written the bordereau.  At the conclusion of the second trial in 1899, Dreyfus, notwithstanding the testimony of qualified defense handwriting witnesses, was again found guilty. Bertillon’s fame and reputation simply overwhelmed the  handwriting evidence put on by the defense.  The second conviction created such a public uproar, however, the French government granted Captain Dreyfus a full pardon a year later.  The true writer of the bordereau was never identified, and the document itself disappeared, the only record of it being in the form of Bertillon’s photographs.  Many have speculated that the entire affair was a government attempt to frame Captain Dreyfus.[10]

Bertillon never changed his opinion that Captain Dreyfus was the writer of the bordereau.  Some believe that Bertillon realized he had made a mistake but was too proud or stubborn to admit it, while others think that his findings were colored by his belief from the beginning that Dreyfus was a spy, and that he let his emotions interfere with his scientific judgment. Others charge Bertillon with being  an anti-Semite.[11]  What ever the case, the Dreyfus affair seriously and irreparably damaged his reputation and status.  It is believed that he didn’t receive the Legion of Honor, an award he richly deserved, because of his refusal to admit his error in the Dreyfus case.[12]

Aside from Bertillon and Alfred Gobert, another prominent handwriting witness in the Dreyfus case had been a New Yorker named David Carvalho who had testified in both trials for the defense.[13]  In 1899, when Carvalho returned home after the second trial, American law enforcement was just awakening to the advantages of scientific criminal identification.  New York, his own state, had adopted Bertillonage three years earlier and had set up a Bertillon school at Sing Sing Prison.  In 1898, police departments in New York City and Boston began measuring arrestees.  By the turn-of-the-century, due in large part to the efforts of the National Police Chiefs Union, 150 police departments and prisons were identifying arrestees and inmates through anthropometry.

World-wide, between 1896 and 1900, Bertillon bureaus were established in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, and Holland.  In England, in 1893, after Bertillonage had been rejected in 1887 and 1888, a delegation made up of Charles Edward Troup, an official of the Home Office; Major Arthur Griffith, inspector of the British Prisons; and Melville Macnaghten, the second in command at Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department, traveled to Paris to visit Bertillon and learn more about anthropometry.  They returned to England mildly enthusiastic about anthropometry, recommending to the Home Secretary that Scotland Yard and the British prisons adopt the identification system.

The Home Secretary, having just read Francis Galton’s 1893 book, Finger Prints,  thought that fingerprinting might be a superior alternative to Bertillonage.  As a result, the Home Secretary asked the delegation to visit Francis Galton at his fingerprint laboratory.  The decision whether or not to adopt Bertillonage would depend on what the delegation learned from Francis Galton.

Since the publication of his book, Galton had been unable to classify fingerprints into more than three basic groups: arches, loops and whorls.  Because arch patterns were rare and loops and whorls were common, the distribution of inked fingerprint sets, according to the occurrence of these patterns, was uneven.  To solve the problem, Galton would have to discover sub-classifications within these basic patterns.  So far he had been unable to do this, and advised  the delegation that it could take up to three years to find the solution.

The Home Office delegation, realizing that fingerprinting was a far superior method of identification than Bertillonage, found Galton’s predicament disappointing.  The principal problem with anthropometry—the time it took to measure an arrestee, record the data, and do it accurately—did not apply to fingerprinting.  The delegation had found the system of identification they preferred, but it was a system that was not yet operational.  On the other hand, Bertillonage was functional, and better than nothing.  Faced with this dilemma, the delegation chose a middle path.  In their report to the Home Office, they recommended that England utilize a modified Bertillon system comprised of only five body measurements.  The Portrait Parle under this watered down program would also include sets of fingerprint impressions so that when Galton did solve his classification problem, the cards could be re-filed according to fingerprints rather than body measurements.  The Home Office, in 1895, accepted this recommendation.  When news got back to Bertillon that England had adopted a bastardized version of his beloved identification system, he was furious.  Put into operation in 1898, England’s version of Bertillonage, during its first year, resulted in the identification of 152 repeat offenders.  The following year there were 243 identifications and the year after that, 462.

Edward Richard Henry, an Englishman who would later solve Galton’s fingerprint classification problem, became, in 1891, the Inspector General of the Nepal, India Police Department.  Shortly after taking over the job, Henry, an admirer of Alphonse Bertillon, established an identification bureau based on anthropometry.  Although a modified system of only six measurements, Bertillonage, under Inspector Henry, was a great success, resulting in the identification of hundreds of habitual offenders. By 1893 Henry was familiar with the work of fingerprint pioneers Dr. Henry Faulds and Fancis Galton.  After working on the problem three years, Edward Henry come up with the solution to Galton’s classification difficulty.  Starting with Galton’s three basic patterns, Henry discovered, within these patterns, five sub-patterns which resulted in eight distinct fingerprint configurations.  For example, he broke arches into plain arches and tented arches; and whorls into plain whorls, central pocket loop whorls, double loop whorls, and accidental whorls; and loops into ulnar and radial loops.  Henry then devised a method of classifying and filing inked fingerprint sets according to fingerprint patterns and ridge counts on each finger.  Henry experimented with his new system in India, and when his book, Classification and Uses of Fingerprints came out in 1901, Scotland Yard replaced its modified Bertillon system with a fingerprint bureau, the first of its kind in the world.

The publication of Henry’s book, and the formation of Scotland Yard’s fingerprint bureau, with Henry in charge, marked the beginning of the end of anthropometry.   In 1902, Spain, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, and Switzerland switched to fingerprinting.  In 1904, at the World’s Fair in St. Louis where members of Scotland Yard’s fingerprint bureau were on hand to  protect the Crown Jewels that were on display, officers from the St. Louis Police Department were taught how to set up and operate a fingerprint bureau.  That year the St. Louis Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in America to drop anthropometry in favor of  fingerprints.  At the time fingerprint bureaus were in operation in several New York prisons and at a handful of federal penitentiaries scattered about the country.[14]  In 1906, Russia, Norway and Sweden replaced anthropometry with fingerprint bureaus.   After this, except for a few police departments in America which kept measuring arrestee until 1920, Bertillonage faded quickly.  When Alphonse Bertillon died in 1914 at age sixty-one, he was a bitter and broken man.  By then fingerprinting dominated anthropometry.  The year of his death even France, his own county, switched to fingerprints.  To the day he died, Bertillon refused to acknowledge the superiority of fingerprints as a method of identifying offenders.

As the first man to find a way to scientifically identify criminals, Alphonse Bertillon secured his position in the history of forensic science as the father of criminal identification.  The fact that his method was replaced by fingerprinting, a system of identification that would have evolved without him, does not diminish his role as an innovator and pioneer. 

[4] For a biography of Henry Faulds, see: Beaven, Colin, Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and The Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science. NY: Hyperion, 2001.

[5] Galton, Francis, Finger Prints. London: Macmillan, 1892.

[6] This account of the Ravachol-Koenigstein case is from: Thorwald, Jurgen, The Century of the Detective. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965, pp. 27-31.

[7] The fifth edition of Criminal Investigation: A Practical Handbook for Magistrates, Police Officers and Lawyers, adapted by John Adam, J. Collyer Adam, and Richard Leofric Jackson, came out in 1962 and was published in London by Sweet & Maxwell, Limited. 

[8] The material about the National Police Chiefs Union and the National Bureau of Identification is from: Dilworth, Donald C. (Editor), Identification Wanted: Development of the American Identification System 1893-1943. Gaithersburg, MD: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1977.

[9] Bredin, Jean-Denis, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. Birmingham, AL: The Notable Trials Library, 1989.

[10] Accounts of the Dreyfus case include: Bredin, Jean-Denis, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus. Birmingham, AL: The Notable Trials Library, 1989; Halasz, Nicholas, Captain Dreyfus: The Story of Mass Hysteria. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1955; Chapman, Guy, The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment. NY: Reynal & Company, 1955; and Rhodes, Henry T. F. , In The Tracks of Crime. London: Turnstile Press, 1952 (pp. 73-76).  Bertillon’s error in the Dreyfus case is discussed in: Soderman, Harry, Policeman’s Lot. NY: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1956 (pp. 59-60).  One of Bertillon’s photographs of the bordereau can be found in the book, Rhodes, H. T.F., Alphonse Bertillon: Father of Scientific Detection.  NY: Abelard-Schuman, 1956.

[11] Bredin, p. 73.

[12]Chapman, Guy, The Dreyfus Case: A Reassessment. NY: Reynal & Company, 1955, p. 354.

[13] An account of Carvalho’s work in the Dreyfus case is in: Carvalho, Claire, and Boyden Sparks, Crime in Ink. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929.

[14] Some of the federal prisons included, Sing Sing, Napanoch, Auburn, Clinton and Leavenworth.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com