Bertillonage

Anthropometry consisted of taking specific body measurements metrically and classifying those measurements into small, medium, and large. That information was then recorded and placed on index cards and filed. The body measurements consisted of the length of arms, sitting height, caliper measurements of the head, right arm, left foot, left middle finger, left forearm, and right ear. While measuring women, measurements of the head, left foot, and elbow were excluded. For boys and young men, classification was according to the color of eyes and details of ears.

Bertillon set down the principles of anthropometry. The principles stated:

  • 1. The human skeleton is unchangeable after the 20th year. (Thigh bones grow but the spine curves to compensate.)
  • 2. It is impossible to find two human bones exactly alike.
  • 3. Necessary measurements could easily be taken with the aid of simple instruments (calipers; Figure 2.2)
Alphonse Bertillon

Figure 2.1 Alphonse Bertillon.

The other part of Bertillonage was known as portrait parle, which literally means “spoken picture” or physical description. This part of the system consisted of four parts:

  • 1. Determination of color of the left eye, hair, beard, and skin.
  • 2. Morphological determinators such as shape, direction, and size of every part of the head.
  • 3. General determinators such as grade of stoutness, carriage, voice, language, dress, social standing, height, and weight.
  • 4. Description of indelible marks such as birthmarks, scars, and tattoos.

Bertillon also required the use of a full face and profile photo that were affixed to the cards. Finally, Bertillon affixed fingerprints to the rear of the index cards; however, Bertillon always championed his anthropometry as a means of identification. Oddly enough, it was fingerprints, which Bertillon recorded, that were responsible for the ultimate demise of the anthropometrical system.

Shortcomings of the Bertillon system of identification were the cause of the demise of the system in its totality. Examination of the Bertillon system reveals the following shortcomings:

1. The system was limited to adults, as the theory espoused by Bertillon said the skeleton remained unchanged after the 20th year. What

Body measurements for the Bertillon method

Figure 2.2 Body measurements for the Bertillon method.

The West case

Figure 2.3 The West case: William West and Will West.

about those persons under the age of twenty? Although provisions were made for children, the provisions proved insignificant.

  • 2. The system was often marked by significant differences in measurements of the same criminal by different examiners. As with any repetitious task, often the practitioner became complacent and was not as vigilant as one would desire.
  • 3. Soft property of the ears resulted in that portion of anthropometry being dropped.
  • 4. The system was extremely slow (measuring devices consisted of calipers and similar measuring devices, which in and of themselves were laborious to use).
  • 5. The West Case of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, 1903. Wifi West was sentenced to prison, and when being processed was accused of being William West on the basis of his physical appearance and anthropometrical measurements. William West was called from the prison population where he was serving a life sentence for murder. The appearance of the two men was striking and their physical attributes were identical (Figure 2.3). Fingerprints were then taken in an attempt to determine identity. When compared, the prints did not match. Were they two twins who had never met? The two Wests were African Americans and it has been speculated that they may have been the offspring of slaves, separated at birth, and had never met until this fateful day.

Although there were shortcomings to the Bertillon system, there were values established that are still in use today. The values established by Bertillonage were:

1. Establishment of a full face/profile fixed-scale photograph. (Today the addition of numbers on the photographs serve as an additional identification marker.)

  • 2. Establishment of the use of a detailed description (portrait parle/ physical description). (General descriptors such as height, weight, race, age, and specific descriptors such as scars, marks, and tattoos are used.)
  • 3. Establishment of the concept of repeated subdivision of data for ease of filing and searching (gathering information and categorizing it in a systematic form).
  • 4. Demonstration that fingerprints could be used to individualize identity.

Although Bertillon promoted the idea of a systematic method of identification, the shortcomings of his system gave rise to what would become the most widely used method of identification and individualization worldwide for the next eighty years: fingerprints. Technology did not come to the forefront for purposes of individualization through bodily fluids until the 1980s with the advent of the use of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

 
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