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.
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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.