Bertillon System of Criminal Identification
The techniques of criminal identification used by American law enforcement today are rooted in the science of anthropometry, which focuses on the meticulous measurement and recording of different parts and components of the human body. Generally, law enforcement of the late 19th and very early 20th centuries believed that each individual had a unique combination of measurements of different body parts, and comparing these measurements could be used to distinguish between individuals.
In 1903, a man named Will West was committed to the penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was photographed and measured using the Bertillon system. Will West’s measurements were found to be almost identical to a criminal at the same penitentiary named William West, who was committed for murder in 1901 and was serving a life sentence. Furthermore, their photographs showed that the two men bore a close physical resemblance to one another, although it was not clear that they were even related. In the ensuing confusion surrounding the true identities of the two men, their fingerprints conclusively identified them and demonstrated clearly that the adoption of a fingerprint identification system was more reliable than the older Bertillon system.
Bertillon’s anthropometric measurement system never quite recovered its exclusive status as the preferred criminal identification system. It was eventually displaced by fingerprint analysis, although Bertillon measurements were commonly used in conjunction with fingerprinting into the early decades of the 20th century. Today, fingerprint analysis is used by law enforcement agencies all over the world to track down criminals and conclusively identify them.
Many artifacts in the collection of the Museum serve to document the history of criminal identification techniques, including those used in earlier centuries and decades but which were superseded by more advanced and accurate scientific techniques. The arc of this technological evolution is important to preserve. Through the study of such artifacts, the public can learn about American law enforcement not only as it exists now, but also discover the history and influences that made the field what it is today.