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Alphonse Bertillon - Page 1 of 2

By Jim Fisher         

Dr. Louis Bertillon, the distinguished Paris physician, statistician, and anthropologist, wasn’t sure what to do about his grown son Alphonse.  The young man suffered nose-bleeds and migraine headaches, lacked social skills, and seemed to have no direction in life.  He was also shy, and didn’t express himself well, often sounding brusque and rude.  But young Bertillon wasn’t a total loss.  He had served honorably as a clerk in the French Army, dressed well, shared his father’s interest in statistics and anthropology, and had inherited his father’s intelligence.

In 1879, when Bertillon was twenty-six, his father arranged a job for him as an assistant clerk in the criminal records office of the Paris Police Department where he would be transferring arrest and criminal background data from various sources onto standard forms.  For a man of his potential, it was a repetitive and mindless job, but because Bertillon was eager to support himself and become independent from his father, he was grateful for the employment opportunity. 

Since Vidocq’s day, the department’s collection of criminal records had ballooned to five million files, including 80,000 mug shots.  Bertillon soon realized, however, that because there was no organized filing system, it was impossible to retrieve any specific information, rendering the records collection virtually useless.  Moreover, he noticed that arrestee physical descriptions were too general and vague, and the mug shots, taken by indifferent commercial photographers, were of low quality.  Bertillon took note of the fact that many of the offenders, when posing for their photographs, had intentionally distorted their faces to disguise their appearances. 

Bertillon had been on the job a matter of days when he began thinking of a better way to identify offenders and maintain their arrest and criminal history records.  Thinking that it would be better to classify and file offender data according their body sizes and measurements instead of their names, which were different every time they were arrested, Bertillon consulted the work of one of his father’s colleagues, Lambert Quetelet.  The Belgian statistician and mathematician had calculated that the chances against two people being roughly the same height were four to one.  Bertillon figured that if several body measurements were added to the equation, the likelihood that any two people would have the same dimensions would be rare if nonexistent.  The uniqueness human body size would become the basis of what Bertillon would term anthropometry, a system of personal identification based on the theory that no two people were identical in their body measurements.[2]   However, to have practical application, Bertillon would have to find a way to file body measurement sets in a way that a particular arrestee’s record could be located, within minutes, from thousands of other body measurement records.

Bertillon hoped that his system would identify offenders who had been arrested before by checking their body measurements against those on file to determine if there was a match.  The fact the arrestee used another name would not fool the system which would be based on physical characteristics rather than names.  A criminal records system, an identification bureau, based on sets of measurements would make the work of records clerks like him vital to law enforcement and criminal investigation.

Bertillon theorized that if the chances of two people being the same height were four to one, then adding one more measurement such as the length of the trunk, would make the odds sixteen to one.  If several measurements were involved, say eleven, the chances of finding two people exactly alike physically would be 4,191,304 to one. 

Before he formally proposed that his system be adopted, Bertillon began experimenting with actual arrestees.  Much to the amusement of the other clerks in the office, he began measuring the circumferences of prisoners’ heads, arm spans, left foot lengths and lengths of left middle fingers.  He would later add sitting height, width of the head between the cheek bones, the length of ears, left forearm, and left little finger, as well as standing height. Using a tape measure and a set of calipers, he made detailed records of each prisoner’s measurements. 

By mid-August, 1879, confident that he was onto something important, Bertillon, on the job four and a half months, wrote a report to the chief of police, Louis Andrieux, describing his method of scientifically identifying criminals and how such a system would revolutionize police work.  The chief of police was new on the job, a position he had obtained through family and political influence.  He was not a well-educated, erudite man and was not particularly imaginative, innovative, or ambitious.  Thinking that Bertillon’s report was some kind of a joke, or that the records clerk had lost his mind, he ignored the proposal.  Meanwhile, Bertillon kept measuring arrestees, and in his spare time went to the jail to measure prisoners.

In October, 1879, Bertillon submitted a second report to the chief of police which included his method of categorizing and filing the measurement sets.  He would first subdivide each of the eleven body measurements into three basic groups—large, medium, and small.  This would place a measurement set, generally, into one of eighty-one groups.  So, if a filing cabinet with eighty-one drawers, contained a total of 81,000 offender cards, each drawer, or subgroup, would hold roughly one-thousand measurement sets, a fairly manageable number.  Bertillon had defined large, medium and small arbitrarily to ensure that the eighty-one subgroups would be equally balanced.  Within each of the eighty-one drawers, the measurement cards would be further arranged chronologically according to the specific measurements of the individual body parts.  Bertillon was confident that it would only take a few minutes to check the file to see if the arrestee just measured had been processed before.

Chief Andrieux, unable to make heads or tails of Bertillon’s second report, passed it onto Gustave Mace, the head of the Surete.  Mace was an imaginative and intelligent man who, in Vidocq’s tradition, had solved many high-profile cases.  But he was a pragmatic, practical man who didn’t put much stock in theories.  As a result, he recommended that the chief ignore this grand, fantiastic scheme from the imagination of some lowly records clerk.  Chief Andrieux sent for Bertillon, and in his office explained that his ideas about criminal identification, while well-intentioned, were simply not workable.  Bertillon, shocked by the rejection, listened in disbelieve as the chief dismissed his brilliant idea as nothing more than a pipe dream.  Bertillon’s efforts to clarify his idea, and to persuade the chief that he was making a terrible mistake by at least not giving it a try, stammered incoherently, adding to the perception that he was some kind of oddball.  The chief concluded the meeting by ordering Bertillon to give up his scheme, and quit pestering his superiors with his harebrained proposals.  If Bertillon didn’t comply with this order,  he would find himself looking for a new job.

With no one else to turn to, Bertillon asked his father to read his report and comment on its wisdom and feasibility.  Extremely impressed with his son’s idea, Dr. Bertillon paid the chief of police a visit.  The chief, notwithstanding Dr. Bertillon’s standing in the community, was not going to let anyone tell him how to run his police department.  At that point Dr. Bertillon realized that as long as this stupid man remained chief of police, his son’s brilliant idea would remain just that, an idea.

Two years after Bertillon began thinking about anthropometry, Louis Andrieux, the man who had stepped on his dream, resigned from the Paris Police Department.  He was replaced by Jean Camecasse, a police administrator with a more open mind, a man who liked to think of himself as a reformer.  In November of 1882, Bertillon was called to Camecasse’s office where he was told his idea would be given a chance.  The chief would assign Bertillon two full-time clerks to help him three months, the duration of the pilot program.  If, during this period, Bertillon’s system resulted in the identification of a repeat offender, the chief would consider adopting it permanently. 

Using calipers for the larger measurements, and pincer gauges for the smaller parts, Bertillon and his helpers began measuring arrestees.  By January of 1883, Bertillon’s files contained five-hundred measurement cards, and ten weeks later, with eighteen hundred cards in his collection, he was still looking for his first identification.  With only two weeks left in the experimental period, the pressure was building, turning the project into an ordeal.  Suffering headaches and nose-bleeds, and a pair of helpers who were laughing behind his back, Bertillon became irritable and short-tempered.  Unable to count on his assistants to do the job correctly, Bertillon was taking work home with him every night.  A woman he was seeing, and Austrian named Amelie Notar, helped him with the tedious job of transferring all of the measurements onto the anthropometry cards.  The two would later marry.

Late in the afternoon of February 20, 1883, Bertillon was measuring an arrestee who said his name was Dupont, the sixth prisoner that day who had used that name.  Bertillon noticed that the man had a mole near his left eyebrow and a face that was vaguely familiar.  Excited by the possibility that he had measured this man before under a different name, Bertillon rushed to the filing cabinet to find a match.  Dupont had a medium head, therefore only the middle third of the cabinet had to be searched.  The width of this prisoner’s head narrowed the number of drawers to nine, the length of his middle finger to three, and the measurement of his little finger to one.  In that drawer Bertillon found fifty cards.  A quick search produced a card containing a set of measurements, to a man who had given name Martin after being arrested on December 15, 1882 for theft,  that were identical to the measurements of the prisoner who had just given the name Dupont.  When confronted with the details of his previous arrest under another name, the prisoner insisted that there had to be some kind of clerical error.  After Bertillon pressed the issue, the prisoner admitted that he was in fact a repeat offender, and that his name wasn’t Martin or Dupont.

Bertillon went to his desk and wrote a report detailing his historic criminal identification.  He closed the office for the day and went to Amelie Notar’s house to give her the good news.  He also visited his ailing father.  Had the identification been made a week later, Bertillon’s father, who died a few days later, would not have known of his son’s success.  No one at the time, however, realized how famous Bertillon would become, and how, later in his career, he would suffer.

Bertillon’s Dupont-Martin identification made the back pages of several Paris newspapers, attracting very little attention.  What mattered most to Bertillon occurred on February 22 when Chief Camecasse informed Bertillon that the police department would adopt his program.  The chief assigned several clerks to help with the measurements, and gave Bertillon office space where he could set up a permanent identification bureau.

The following month Bertillon identified a second recidivist, and during the next ninety days, six more.  In the last six months of 1883, Bertillon’s system caused the identification of fifty repeat offenders, a rate of success that would increase as the collection of measurements grew.  In 1883 alone Bertillon and his clerks measured 7,336 arrestees.  Flush with success and a purpose in life, Bertillon had enough confidence that year to ask Amelie Notar, his unofficial assistant, to marry him.  She accepted and would continue to function as his assistant and professional confidant.

In 1884, Bertillon and his people identified three-hundred previously arrested offenders, and had yet to find two people with the same set of body measurements.  Bertillon was now confident that his  system of criminal identification was grounded on solid principle.  In April of that year, Gustave Mace, the head of the Surete, and a vocal critic of Bertillon and his program, resigned.  Bertillon had hoped that Mace’s departure would clear the way to better relations with the rank and file detectives, but it didn’t.  Bertillon, a man without charm whose personality tended to irritate, made no effort to get the support of the people his system was designed to help, making no attempt to hide his contempt for detectives he considered ignorant and reactionary.  The detectives returned the favor by referring to Bertillon as the “Paleface in the Prefecture.”   Bertillon had, however, gained the respect of the records clerks who were helping him gather and file offender data.

In December of 1884, the director of the French prison system announced publicly that he intended to introduce Bertillon’s system into all of the country’s prisons.  The story made front-page news, and thanks to a journalist who coined the word, anthropometry became Bertillonage.  Alphonse Bertillon was on his way to becoming an international celebrity.

A few detectives in the Surete were warming up to Bertillonage but found that while it was useful once an offender was in custody, it didn’t facilitate identification in the field.  Whenever a police officer encountered a suspicious person, they couldn’t measure him on the spot.  Bertillon, mindful of this criticism, decided to add better quality photographs to his files in order that detectives in search of fugitives would have a better idea who they were looking for.  To improve this aspect of the identification bureau, Bertillon bought his own camera and began taking arrest photographs himself, eliminating the commercial photographers.  In addition to full-face shots, he would take profile or side pictures in order to reveal, among other things, the subjects’ ears which he believed were unique physical features.

In 1885, Bertillon moved into new quarters, a suite of rooms in the attic of the Paris Courthouse.  The Criminal Records Office, now called the Central Office for Anthropometry in Paris, was officially re-opened with a formal ceremony attended by politicians, law enforcement officials and bureaucrats from all over France.  Also in attendance were representatives of the British Home Office who were in Paris to learn more about Bertillon’s innovative system of identification.

Shortly after the re-opening ceremony, Bertillon became involved in a case that would expand the application of anthropometry and win the full support of the Surete.  Detectives, unable to identify a badly decomposed body that had washed up on the bank of the Marne, came to Bertillon for help.  The only fact known about the corpse was that it contained a bullet, the apparent cause of death.   The body was in such bad shape Bertillon could only make five measurements, but that was enough to identify him as a man who had been arrested twenty months earlier for assault.  This information gave the detectives the lead that resulted in the identification of the man’s killer.  He had been shot in a quarrel over a debt.  Following this case, Bertillon was routinely called to the morgue to identify human remains.

In the United States, Robert W. McClaughry  the head of the Illinois prison system, adopted Bertillionage in 1887, the first American to take this step.  A year later, when he became chief of the Chicago Police Department, Chicago became the first American law enforcement agency to adopt the Bertillon system.  Sergeant Michael P. Evans, the man McClaughry put in charge of the Bertillon bureau, would, four years later, establish the department’s rogue’s gallery.  Sixteen years later, as warden of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, McClaughry would be the force behind the adoption of fingerprints as the new method of identifying inmates.

In England, the year the Illinois prison system adopted Bertillonage, Edmund R. Spearman of the British Home Office, attempted, without result, to get Parliament to sanction the adoption of anthropometry at Scotland Yard and in the prison system.  The criminal records system at Scotland Yard, made up principally of 115,000 mug shots, was as chaotic and useless as the system Bertillon had encountered when he joined the records office of the Paris Police Department.  Detectives were wasting their time looking for fugitives who were already in prison on other charges.  In 1888, when Jack-the-Ripper murdered five prostitutes on the east side of London, Scotland Yard, unable to identify the killer, came under severe public criticism.  Dozens of detectives wasted hundreds of man hours searching the records for criminal histories and M.O.s for leads in the unsolved case.  Once again Spearman pushed for Bertillonage, and once again the idea was rejected.[3]

The year Jack-the-Ripper was terrorizing London, Bertillon devised what he called the portrait parle (speaking picture) a records card containing, in addition to body measurements, descriptions of noses and ears, body markings, dates of birth, and criminal histories augmented by high quality, full-face and profile mug shots.

By 1889, ten years after he had joined the records office as a lowly clerk, Bertillon was a celebrity in France and known in law enforcement circles throughout the world.  That year he published some impressive figures.  Of  3l,849 arrestees measured during the life of his system, 615 were found to be repeat offenders, many of whom were wanted at the time for other crimes.  His system of criminal identification worked, and he could prove it. 

[1]This account of Alphonse Bertillon’s life is based upon the following sources: Rhodes, Henry T.F., Alphonse Bertillon: Father of Scientific Detection. London: George G. Harrap & Co., LTD, 1956;  Thorwald, Jurgen, The Century of the Detective. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964;  Liston, Robert, Great Detectives. NY: Platt & Monk Publishers, 1966 (“Alphonse Bertillon,” pp. 49-72); Dilworth, Donald C. (Editor), Silent Witness: The Emergence of Scientific Criminal Identification. Gaithersburg, MD: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1977 (“The Bertillon System,” pp. 22-3);  Dilworth, Donald C. (Editor), Identification Wanted: Development of the American Criminal Identification System, 1893-1943. Gaithersburg, MD: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1977 (pp. 1-53); Smyth, Frank, Cause of Death: The Story of Forensic Science. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1980 (pp. 114-30); Ashton-Wolfe, H., Strange Crimes. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1932 (“Studies of Bertillon Methods”); Morain, Alfred, The Underworld of Paris. NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1931 (pp. 13-25); Parry, Eugenia, Crime Album Stories: Paris 1886-1902. First Scalo Edition, 2000 (Bertillon’s crime scene photographs);  Bailey, William G., editor, “Bertillon System,” in The Encyclopedia of Police Science. NY: Garland, 1989; and Souchon, Henri, “Alphonse Bertillon,” in Stead, Philip John (Editor),  Pioneers in Policing. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1977 (pp. 121-47).

[2] In his book, The Century of the Detective, (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1965), Jurgen Thorwald writes that nineteen years before Bertillon came up with anthropometry, a man named Stevens, the director of a French prison, had suggested that body measurements be made of all inmates.  Steven’s idea was ignored. There is no evidence that Bertillon knew of Stevens or his idea. 

[3] The chaotic condition of Scotland Yard’s identification system is described in: Thorwald, Jurgen, The Century of the Detective.  NY: Harcourt Brace & World, Inc., 1965, p. 43.

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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