Bertillon General

Bertillon Cards are an antiquated form of criminal identification popular before the turn of the twentieth century. The science of these measurements was based on the premise of anthropometry made popular by Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon. Bertillon started his career as clerk at the Prefecture of Police of Paris in 1879. Frustrated by the difficulty in identifying repeat criminals, Bertillon sought something that could identify a person, even if they changed their name and facial features. Bertillon’s father was a respected scientist who had studied the physical uniqueness of human beings. The senior Bertillon has spent his life trying to verify the theory that no two people had precisely the same physical measurements. Alphonse Bertillon applied this research and the anthropometrical measurements his father used to his new system.

This system, which eventually came to be known as bertillionage, was based on eleven measurements taken of various body parts believed not to grow after a human reached adulthood. These measurements are split into three categories: the whole of the body, the head, and the members. The organs of the body are considered in three respects: size, form, and color. The likelihood of two people having all the same measurements is 4,000,000 to 1. The classification system Bertillon created was simple but effective. Beginning with the length of the head, the criminals were divided into equal categories of small, medium, or large. Then, the cards were subdivided by width of the head, again either small, medium or large. Cards were further divided by length of the middle finger, and finally by length of the small finger, resulting in a classification system of eighty-one categories. In his Identification of Criminals, Bertillon described how to take these measurements and create the classification system, so that it could be replicated by police departments the world over.

Each Bertillon card contains a mug shot, both frontal and profile, on the front. On the reverse, and sometimes on folded extensions, the individual's measurements are listed. These include: height, reach, trunk (height of man sitting), length of the head, length of the right ear, breadth of the right ear, length of the left foot, length of the left middle finger, length of the left little finger, and length of the left forearm. As one can see, measurements are taken from both sides of the body. These measurements are accompanied by quantitative prisoner information (name, age, occupation) and any other distinguishing marks.

These cards are important, but the envelopes in which they are stored provide a wealth of information as well. This can include newspaper articles about the individual's crimes, correspondence between government agencies, and other supporting materials. They provide amazing context and create narratives. The photographs are some of the first widely distributed and the cards are excellent evidence of previous policing methods.

The majority of the scanned evidence will come from the collection at the New York City Police Museum. This will be supplemented by research into Alphonse Bertillon's life and how the cards can be best used today.

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License