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Alphonse Bertillion

In 1877, Alphonse Bertillion was appointed to the Prefecture of Police as a records clerk. He shortly became disgusted with the way in which records were maintained. Within a year he presented a new scheme for identifying criminals, based on body and head measurements. Using this technique (anthropometric or "man measurement"), he identified his first recidivist in 1883. In 1884, Bertillion identified 241 and was recognized for developing the first scientific method of identifying a criminal to be used by a police force.

This system was soon incorporated into the British and American police systems. Although it would be replaced by fingerprinting in the early twentieth century, the Bertillion system was responsible for bringing precision into a haphazard process. Prior to this development, criminal identification depended on the memories of witnesses. Criminals were able to commit their crimes and disappear into the streets with the knowledge that the police were unlikely to capture them. The Bertillion system made identification possible without requiring the witness to be present at the arrest. More than just a system of measurements, Bertillion also created the portrait parle (speaking likeness) system which was a precise method of describing a person's facial and physical characteristics. This portion of Bertillion's system is still used by the majority of the world's police departments, although it has lost much of its exactness due to the evolution of shortcuts in the process.

The problem that finally led to the discrediting of Bertillion's anthropometric system was the inability to ensure uniformity in measurement. The problem was two-fold. First, different officers frequently obtained different measurements on the same individual. This was caused by a lack of agreement on how tightly the calipers should fit in order to obtain the measurement. The second problem was caused by the aging process. As people age, so do many of the bodily characteristics, especially if the original measurements were obtained when the person was not yet an adult.

The system was ultimately discredited as a result of the Will West case in 1903. Will West was mistakenly identified in Leavenworth, Kansas as a previous convict, William West. The use of fingerprints allowed the police to identify the real William West, who was serving time in another prison. This case marked the end of anthropometric measurements and the beginning of fingerprinting as the principle means of criminal identification.

Bertillion received great criticism as a result of this, and that sometimes obscures his other achievements. It was those other contributions, however, that make this man one of the great pioneers in criminalistics. He was instrumental in introducing the use of photography to police investigations, especially at crime scenes. He introduced handwriting and forgery analysis, ballistics, galvanoplastic preservation of footprints, the dynamometer-used in determining the degree of force used in housebreaking, and the "Bertillion Kit", the case containing instruments of evidence collection taken by detectives to a crime scene.

Thus, the greatest developments in the introduction of eighteenth century science to policing took place in France. Along with Bertillion, we also find the French medical doctor, Mathieu Orfila (1787-1853), who first proved in court the presence of arsenic in a murder victim. Finally, In 1884, Jean-Alexander Lacassagne founded the first criminalistics laboratory in Lyon.

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Last modified: April 13, 2001