One of my crime history heroes is Alphonse Bertillon, the French criminologist who began as a humble clerk and ended up developing a worldwide system for identifying criminals.
Alphonse Bertillon was born in Paris in 1853. Despite his father being an accomplished statistician (and later his younger brother Jacques), Alphonse’s educational achievements were patchy and he failed to complete medical school. Keen to find a post for his 26-year-old son, Monsieur Bertillon procured him a position in the Préfecture de Police, as a records clerk. Alphonse’s job was copying the details of known criminals onto index cards. But he soon realised he could do far better and, over the next two years, he developed his own recording system.
Using his knowledge that the structure of the adult body doesn’t change throughout its life span, and that no two individuals have the same combination of measurements, Bertillon devised his anthropometric system, later known as Bertillonage, which was based on 11 measurements of body parts, including the length of the left foot and the right ear. He presented his idea to the police department and it was formally adopted by the French police in 1883. During the first year, Bertillon used his new system to identify some 300 habitual offenders.
Once the suspect had been measured, the results were entered onto a card, with additional information such as personal history, past convictions and other physical features. At a time when offenders were adept at changing their appearance through the use of disguise, facial hair and tattoos, Bertillon sought to overcome this by developing further innovations, such as a letter code for distinctive features, and charts with eye colour and nose shapes.
Alphonse Bertillon was also the pioneer of forensic photography, both in capturing the images of convicted criminals and at crime scenes. His most famous achievement was the creation of the ‘portrait parlé’ (speaking portrait), which involved photographing an individual’s profile as well as their face. The ‘mug shot’ became the standard process for photographing suspects in 1888. At crime scenes, Bertillon used a camera on a tripod to record and measure the setting. In addition, he developed research into footprinting and ballistics.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Bertillon’s anthropometric system was used all over the world, until it was eventually replaced by fingerprinting. At home in France, his meticulous record keeping system contributed to the arrest and conviction of serial killer Joseph Vacher, known as the French Ripper, in 1897.
Such was Bertillon’s international fame that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made references to his expertise in his iconic stories. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr James Mortimer states that Sherlock is ‘the second highest expert in Europe’. When the disgruntled detective enquires as to who is the first, Mortimer replies, ‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.’
Alphonse Bertillon spent all his life in Paris (he married Amélie Notar in 1890). He died on 13 February 1914 and is buried in my favourite cemetery, Père Lachaise. According to his wishes, his brain was given to the Mutual Autopsy Society and dissected for scientific research.
Identification Anthropométrique, Alphonse Bertillon (Melun,1885)
Manuel du Portrait Parlé, R. A. Reiss (Lausanne, 1905)
A Forensic Forum, Robin Odell (Mango Books, 2017)
The Killer of Little Shepherds, Douglas Starr (Simon & Schuster, 2011)