Alphonse Bertillon

Born: 22 April 1853, Paris, France

Died: 13 February 1914, Avenue du Trocadéro

Nationality: French

Alphonse Bertillon (22 April 1853 – 13 February 1914) was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who used the anthropological technique of anthropometry to create a physical measurement-based identifying system. The first scientific system utilized by police to detect criminals was anthropometry. Criminals could only be identified by name or photograph before that period. Fingerprinting eventually supplanted the method.

He is also credited with inventing the mug shot. Criminal photography began in the 1840s, just a few years after the development of photography, but Bertillon did not standardize the procedure until 1888. In the historic Dreyfus incident, his faulty evidence was used to wrongly convict Alfred Dreyfus.


Bertillon was born in the French capital of Paris. He was the younger brother of statistician and demographer Jacques Bertillon and the son of statistician Louis-Adolphe Bertillon. Alphonse Bertillon grew up in a scientific family. His grandfather was the person who created the term “demography” in 1855, and his father was a statistician hired as a professor of demography at the School of Anthropology in Paris. In 1879, Alphonse began his career as a clerk at the Paris Prefecture of Police, where he copied and stored identification cards and photographs.

Soon after, he began designing his filing system, which was based on a series of nine anthropometric measurements, each of which was divided into three categories: small, average, and big, allowing the cards to be sorted into various subdivisions. Bertillon is thought to have been allowed to prove the validity of his system to the Prefect of Police, Ernest Camescasse, around 1882. Bertillon was able to identify a criminal by demonstrating that the individual who had just been arrested at the scene of burglary had before been arrested for robbery. He assumed a phony identity, but his physical measurements “betrayed” him with Bertillon’s help, and he quickly confessed.

He was dissatisfied with the ad hoc procedures employed to identify the growing number of captured criminals who had previously been arrested, as he was an orderly man. This, together with France’s constantly rising recidivism rate since 1870, prompted him to develop anthropometrics. In his spare time, he took measurements. He carried out his operations in Paris’s famous La Santé Prison, where he was met with jeers from both prisoners and police officers.

Bertillon died in Paris on February 13, 1914.

Bertillon and the Dreyfus affair

Bertillon testified for the prosecution in the Dreyfus case twice, in 1894 and 1899. He testified as a handwriting expert, claiming that the incriminating document was authored by Alfred Dreyfus (known as the “bordereau”). However, he was not a handwriting expert, and his confused and flawed evidence played a key role in one of history’s most infamous miscarriages of justice: the sentence of the innocent Dreyfus to life on Devil’s Island.

He intended to prove that Dreyfus had disguised his handwriting by copying his handwriting as if it were being done by someone else so that if anyone thought the bordereau was written by Dreyfus, he would be able to claim that his writing had been forged by someone else. This was adopted by both courts-martial, and Dreyfus was found guilty. The second court-martial verdict provoked a major controversy, and it was finally overturned.

Bertillon was often considered a strange individual. Bertillon was “clearly not in full possession of his faculties,” according to Maurice Paléologue, who observed him at the second court-martial. Bertillon’s argument is described as “a continuous network of absurdities” by Paléologue, who also mentions “… his moonstruck eyes, his sepulchral voice, the saturnine attraction” that made him feel like he was “… in the presence of a necromancer.”

Bertillon claimed that his graphological theory was founded on probability calculus in mathematics. Bertillon’s technique was found to be devoid of any scientific value in 1904 by three renowned mathematicians, Henri Poincaré, Jean Gaston Darboux, and Paul Émile Appell, who decided that he had failed both to apply the method and to present his data appropriately. Dreyfus was acquitted in 1906 because this main piece of evidence against him was disproved.

Bertillon system

The Bertillon system is the name given to Bertillon’s specialized anthropological technique. The head length, head breadth, length of the middle finger, length of the left foot, and length of the cubit were the five initial measurements in this system. Bertillon employed photography, now known as a mugshot, in addition to these measures to complete this system of record. These identifying methods were merged into a system that allows law enforcement authorities to quickly access information and photographs.

Although being founded on scientific measures, the method was known to have weaknesses. For example, because it was largely created for men who had attained full physical maturity and had short hair, it may not have been able to accurately apply to children or women.

Bertillon’s methodical use of photography to document crime scenes and evidence was one of his most important contributions to forensics. He created a technique for shooting crime scenes using a camera mounted on a high tripod to document and scan the area before investigators arrived. He also invented “metric photography,” in which calibrated grids were used to record the size of a space and the items within it.

Bertillon had attained international celebrity by the mid-1890s, due to articles in popular magazines, exhibition displays, and international expositions. He fought vehemently against those who supported fingerprint identification, but eventually, albeit grudgingly, implemented fingerprinting into his system.

He also contributed to the advancement of other forensic scientific procedures such as handwriting analysis, galvanoplastic compounds for preserving footprints and other impressions, ballistics, and a dynamometer for measuring the degree of force used in breaking.

Judicial Identity

The “Judicial Identity” department was established in 1893, and Bertillon was instructed to apply his methods to the national archive known as the sommiers judiciaires, which included the descriptions and criminal records of all convicted criminals. Bertillon became increasingly involved in the creation of a network system connecting the capital to the rest of the country. The big cities quickly followed suit, establishing their own identification offices that fed into a single database. Bertillon also helped the detectives in the use of mobile identification tools such as a stamp-size mug shot, criminal categories albums, descriptive notices, and other tools.

Alley workers in Minneapolis

“Alley laborers” were African women who worked as sex workers in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Bertillon system was used by the Minneapolis Police Department to identify and document the crimes committed by these alley workers. The system quickly became a tool for police and categorizing these women.

Many black women would utilize aliases instead of their real names to get around the system. The most popular identity was “Mamie,” which was also the alias of Mamie Knight, the only surviving mugshot of an alley worker from the department’s Bertillon period. Her mugshot is currently housed in the files of the St. Paul Police Department.

The application of these same procedures to recent cases of unidentifiable human remains is known as forensic anthropology. A forensic anthropologist can assist law enforcement in constructing a profile of the unidentified remains using established methodologies. Sex, age, ancestry, height, length of time since death, and sometimes the evaluation of injuries detected on bones are all part of the profile.

In many circumstances, the forensic anthropologist is called to testify in court about the identity of the remains and/or the trauma or wounds present on the remains once they have been identified. Forensic anthropology is used to determine the cause of death of humans.

A scientist can ascertain the cause of death in a variety of methods. An inspection of the skeleton remains is usually required to determine a human body. Identification of skeletal, highly decayed, or otherwise unidentified human remains is critical for legal as well as humanitarian reasons. To identify human remains and assist in the detection of crime, forensic anthropologists use basic scientific techniques developed in physical anthropology.

In today’s forensic field, forensic anthropology is well-established science. When other physical qualities that may be used to identify a body no longer exist, anthropologists are relied upon to analyze remains and assist in the identification of individuals from bones.

To identify remains based on skeletal traits, forensic anthropologists collaborate with forensic pathologists. If the victim is missing for an extended period or is eaten by scavengers, the flesh marks required for identification are lost, making routine identification difficult, if not impossible. Forensic anthropologists can offer physical characteristics of a missing person to be entered into databases like the National Crime Information Center in the United States.

In a judicial situation, forensic anthropology is concerned with the identification of human remains. A forensic anthropologist’s main task is to examine human skeletal remains and determine the deceased’s biological profile. As a result, forensic anthropologists help medical examiners as well as law enforcement agencies. For a long time, forensic anthropology was not considered a significant subject specialty in most areas of the world.

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