Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Identifying Criminals Before Fingerprinting Was Used

Susan Page Davis here. Last month I told you about the history of fingerprinting for identification. But what did law enforcement officers use before fingerprinting became widespread?
Alphonse Bertillon

The Bertillon method of identification was devised in 1892 by French anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon. It involved using body measurements by which to classify individuals and thus identify them.

The formula uses measurements of people’s body parts and paved the way for the modern, computerized methods of facial and body recognition. These measurements were recorded on a card with the person’s photographs, and it became known as the Bertillon System.

Bertillon was born in Paris in 1853 and became a police officer. He studied biometrics, or body measurements and applied anthropology to crime investigation. The discipline became known as anthropometry. Up to this time, only a person’s name and photographs identified him.


Bertillon is also the inventor of the “mug shot,” where criminals are photographed from both the front and the side. He standardized this process about 1888. He advanced many other forensics techniques as well, including the method of comparing fingerprints, method of photographing a crime scene, and a new way to preserve footprints.

In his method of measurements, the five primary ones used were: head length, head breadth, length of the middle finger, length of the left foot, and length of the forearm. Other measurements were taken in each of these categories, and results were recorded on standardized cards with the photographs. Also recorded were eye color and length of the little finger. He also created a cross-referenced method of filing the cards so that the information was comparatively easy to retrieve.

Examples of the facial measurements Bertillon used.

The Bertillon System of indemnifying crime suspects was widely used before fingerprinting became standard. Its accuracy was questioned when, in 1903, a now-famous case emerged: the case of William West and Will West.

At the Leavenworth, Kansas federal prison, a man named Will West was incarcerated. After he entered, he taken to be photographed for mug shots, and his Bertillon measurements were taken. The clerk asked if he had been there before, but West said he had not.

These photos are used by the FBI in training. From the National Law Enforcement Museum.

After the process was finished, the clerk took the new card with his measurements and went to the files. He returned with another card. The man pictured on it looked remarkably like Will West and had nearly the same name (William West). They also had almost identical Bertillon measurements.
Will West insisted that the card the clerk showed him was not him. The clerk turned it over and read that the man on the front, William West, had been convicted of murder in 1901 and was then in the prison serving a life sentence.

It has never been determined whether these two men, Will West and William West, were related, but from then on, their fingerprints were used to conclusively identify them. Law enforcement officials and courts agreed that fingerprinting was more reliable than the Bertillon System. This case has long been used in training investigators.



If you would like to be entered in a drawing for your choice of one of Susan’s books, leave a comment below, including your contact information.






Susan Page Davis is the author of more than seventy novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and historical romance genres. A Maine native, she now lives in western Kentucky. She is a winner of the Carol Award, Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, Will Rogers Medallion, and more. Visit her website at www.susanpagedavis.com, where you can see all her books, sign up for her occasional newsletter, enter a month book drawing, and read a short story on her Romance page.



18 comments:

  1. Loved this post! What a mystery about Will and William! Thanks for the information!
    bcrug(at)myfairpoint(dot)net
    By the way, my email will be changing this week. If I win, reach out to me on FB, please. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks for coming by, Connie! Isn't that amazing?

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  2. Greatt post about identifying criminals in the past. With all the modern technology and labs used for evidence today what a change through the years.
    I enjoy your books and all the research you put into your stories.
    marilynridgway78 [at]gmail [dot]com

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    1. Thank you, Marilyn. What a hard time the police officers had back then--but then new problems face them today. Incredible how much investigations have changed over the years as new technology emerged.

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  3. Wow! What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

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  4. Very interesting post! I'm sure forensics has changed a lot in the past century, especially in the past 30 years or so the computer age and Internet.

    pattymh2000(at)yahoo(dot)com

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    1. It sure has, Patty. I went to update one of my older books and was amazed at all the things I had to change!

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  5. This was very interesting. We use fingerprints and other things so much now that we don't realize that that was not always the case. Thank you for sharing this post.
    susanmsj at msn dot com

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  6. I had no idea this existed back then.

    Linda Orr - rayorr@bellsouth.net

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    1. I signed up today to get e-mails from here like you told me. Thanks.

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    2. Yeah, Bertillon was a very clever guy.

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  7. Of course I want to be entered, love her books.

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    1. Thanks, Judy! Can you leave us a way to contact you if you win?

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  8. Susan, thank you for this fascinating post!

    psalm103and138 at gmail dot com

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  9. And the winner is ... Susan Johnson. Thank you all for joining the conversation.

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  10. Really liked this post . I get such interesting information from you all!

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