Bertillon System of Criminal Identification



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Side Two

Arrest card, ca. 1933. 2006.488.106. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, D.C.

An arrest card for 17 year old Edward Blasco (alias William Breen). The New Haven (CT) Police Department arrested Blasco for trespassing on railroad cars. This  arrest card, dated 1933, shows that the New Haven Police had already begun to rely on fingerprint identification techniques to identify criminals, although the card itself contained spaces for the entry of Bertillon measurements.

Photograph, ca. 1960. 2008.40.26. Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum, Washington, D.C.
This image was probably used in a ca. 1960s FBI training session or lecture to illustrate the history of the use of fingerprinting in law enforcement.

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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.

Alphonse Bertillon was a French criminologist who first developed this anthropometric system of physical measurements of body parts, especially components of the head and face, to produce a detailed description of an individual.  This system, invented in 1879, became known as the Bertillon system, or bertillonage, and quickly gained wide acceptance as a reliable, scientific method of criminal investigation. In 1884 alone, French police used Bertillon’s system to help capture 241 repeat offenders, which helped establish the system’s effectiveness. Primarily, investigators used the Bertillon system to determine if a suspect in custody had been involved in previous crimes. Law enforcement agencies began to create archives of records of known criminals, which contained his or her anthropometric measurements, as well as full-face and profile photographs of the perpetrator (now commonly known as "mugshots," which are still in use today).

The Bertillon system was introduced in the U.S. in 1887 by R.W. McClaughry, Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. McClaughry translated Bertillon’s 1885 edition of Signaletic Instructions Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification from French to English, and its use in the States became quickly and widely accepted. The Bertillon system continued as the dominant criminal identification method both in the U.S. and Europe for almost three decades.  In 1903, the case of the “West Brothers” demonstrated the reliability of the emerging science of fingerprint identification over that of the Bertillon system.

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.


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