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Alphonse Bertillon: a Foe to Criminals

In one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most iconic stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr James Mortimer states that Sherlock is ‘the second highest expert in Europe’. When a disgruntled Sherlock asks who could possibly be above him, Mortimer responds ‘to the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly…’

Alphonse Bertillon was the man that had Sherlock Holmes beat. This crime history hero is remarkably often overlooked in our study of police and crime history, yet he is known as the father of forensic science, the master of the crime scene, the maker of the mugshot and even, one of the first to take a selfie!

Born in Paris in 1853, Alphonse was the son of an esteemed statistician yet unlike his father, Alphonse wasn’t known for his educational achievements. After failing medical school, Bertillon senior decided to intervene, finding Alphonse a position in the Préfecture de Police as a records clerk. Aged 26, Alphonse spent his days copying the details of known criminals onto index cards but it wasn’t long until he began to see flaws in the system and for the next two years, he developed a recording system which went on to lay the foundations for future policing.

Influenced by criminal anthropology, Alphonse used his knowledge that certain elements of the structure of the adult body don’t change throughout its life span he devised a system which involved the measuring of 11 separate body parts. These measurements would be unique, knowing that no two individuals would measure the exact same, Alphonse had the basis of the significant system which preceded fingerprinting. Presenting his idea, the anthropometric system or Bertillonage, to the Police department in 1879 was difficult, it took four years to be formally adopted but Alphonse quickly proved the success of his own system in the first year, identifying over 300 habitual offenders leading to countless arrests.

The measurements taken, along with information such as personal history, past convictions and other physical features were taken and added to the card. Bertillon even developed keys for various nose types, eye shapes and eye colours, using letter codes to distinguish these. All of this information was key, and was recorded onto index cards with a photograph. The photograph is arguably one of Bertillon’s more famous developments, the speaking portrait, eventually known as the mugshot involved taking a photograph recording the front and the profile of a person. Becoming standard practice in 1888 it was safe to say Bertillon had developed a complex and highly successful system which was deeply influential all around the globe. Police forces across the world found themselves travelling to Paris for training, stating Paris to be their Mecca and Bertillon their Prophet. Forces also insisted on Bertillonage training at home, using the many textbooks and learning resources Bertillon published. Soon the world would be working from Bertillon’s system, a system which cemented this failed medical student firmly as a recognised forensic and criminal expert in a very challenging and fast-paced field.


If that’s not enough, Bertillon was also one of the first to formally introduce cameras to the crime scene, arguing the importance of evidence and accurately documenting the scene as it lay. He was even reportedly, the first to photograph latent fingerprints and took one of the world’s first selfies, snapping his very own mugshot!

Sadly, Bertillon’s ego destroyed him. In 1894 he was at the centre of the Dreyfus Affair, a trial which would go down as ‘one of the most absurd trials in the history of forensic science’. Mistakenly convicting an innocent man over poor handwriting analysis Bertillon became a laughing stock. His system was eventually replaced with fingerprinting and he died in 1914, aged 60. However, to this day, he is known as one of the greatest scientific minds and a true foe to all criminals.

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