Alphonse bertillon and the transition to dactylography

Perhaps one of the most influential people when speaking of criminal identification, is Alphonse Bertillon. He was born in 1853 to a family with strong scientific traditions. His grandfather was a well-known naturalist and mathematician, and he was the son of a distinguished French physician and statistician. Ironically, Bertillon was a very poor student. He was expelled from several schools and dismissed from an apprenticeship. In 1879 he was able to land a menial job filing information cards on criminals for the Paris police. It was from Bertillon's frustration from these cards that he became noted as the Father of Criminal Identification. Bertillon described the cards as vague, with descriptions that could fit anyone. It was his enthusiasm and curiosity that drove him to compare photographs and take measurements of criminals arrested.

Bertillon concluded that if 11 physical measurements (height, length of outside, length of trunk, head length, head width, cheek width, length of right ear, length of left foot, length of left middle finger, length of left pinkie finger, and length of forearm) of a person were taken, the chances of finding another person with the same 11 measurements were 4,191,304 to 1. He called his system of measurements "anthropometry." Bertillon stored the measurements on a card, which yielded one of the problems of anthropometry—no readily searchable system.

Bertillon's anthropometrical system of personal identification was divided into three integrated parts: (1) the bodily measurements that required measurements, conducted under carefully prescribed conditions on a series of the most characteristic dimensions of bony parts of the human anatomy; (2) the morphological description of the appearance and shape of the body and its measured parts as they related to movements "and even the most characteristic mental and moral qualities"; and (3) a description of "peculiar marks" observed on the surface of the body, resulting from disease, accident, deformity, or artificial disfigurement, such as moles, warts, scars, tattoos, and so on.

In 1883 Bertillon's system of anthropometry received worldwide attention when it was implemented in France, on an experimental basis. Bertillon's anthropometric system proved to the world that there was a more reliable way to document criminals. Shortly after the system's release, he identified his first habitual criminal. In 1888 Bertillon added another innovation to his system, the portrait parlé, or "spoken picture." Bertillon's additions of the full-face and profile photographs of each criminal were the predecessors of the modern-day mug shot. Although Bertillon made great strides, many countries abandoned his system of anthropometry after the turn of the century. By the early 20th century, with Fauld's and Herschel's research on dactylography, many countries were turning away from anthropometry. It was because of this that Bertillon reluctantly added fingerprints to his portrait parle. As stated earlier, one of the problems with anthropometry was the need to store filing cards.

After time Bertillon's system became difficult to manage, and that was one of the problems that many countries using anthropometry cited. In 1902 Bertillon solved the murder of Joseph Riebel, when he discovered the fingerprint of Henri Scheffer on the pane of a glass cupboard. His primary focus in this case was how to photograph the fingerprint without destroying the evidence. Bertillon's work in criminal identification helped him pioneer the use of photography to enhance fingerprints. It was this specific case that not only underscored the practical use of photography in criminal investigation but also illustrated the value of dactylography.

The downfall of Bertillon's system was the Will West case. In 1903 Will West arrived at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. While West was being processed as a new arrival the penitentiary, an employee recognized him. There was already a photograph and Bertillon measurements for Will West, the employee said. A comparison of fingerprints of this new arrival with the information on file revealed that despite almost identical appearances, the identification card belonged to William West, an inmate who had been at Leavenworth since 1901. According to prison records via family correspondence, the two Wests were actually twin brothers. The West cases finalized dactylography's superiority to anthropometry. Although the West case proved that Bertillon's system was imperfect, it served the field of criminal identification for some 10 years. Bertillon died in 1914, leaving behind a legacy of hard work and dedication.

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