Alphonse Bertillon (1853 - 1914) was a key actor in the history of crime knowledge at the turn of the century. Influenced by criminal anthropology, his first contribution was the design and implementation of novel police identification methods at the Paris Prefecture de Police. From the 1880s onward, he also promoted a specific brand of policing knowledge, and fostered its dissemination on a large scale, in France as well as abroad.
His work was deeply influential all around the globe, and Bertillon is unanimously recognized as one of the forefathers of forensic science. At the same time, he also fostered brand new forms of judicial analysis, and developed unheard-of techniques and know-hows in the field of identification. His considerable written output tackles a variety of subjects, from criminal photography to dactyloscopy through file management and the analysis of crime-scene traces.
This virtual exhibition aims at offering a complete overview of Alphonse Bertillon’s work by putting forward numerous iconographic records and such scientific tools as bibliographies and archives. Another goal is to draw on the project to stimulate the production of new articles in the dynamic field of social science research about the identification of persons, and foster, in a comparative perspective, new research about how Bertillon’s work was received and adapted in Europe and throughout the world.
Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), or the Story of an Identifier
Successively viewed as the founder of anthropometry, the inventor of the mug shot, the forefather of dactyloscopy and criminalistics, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) is one of the key figures of forensic science. Born to a family of scientists (demographers, physicians, anthropologists, and statisticians), he started his career in 1879, a mere clerk at the Paris Prefecture de Police whose job consisted in copying out and filing identification cards and photographs.
The process was not rigorous enough for Bertillon, who designed his own filing system, based on a series of nine anthropometric measurements, each broken down into three categories (small, average, and large), which made it possible to sort out the cards into multiple subdivisions. It was not until 1882, however, that Bertillon was given the opportunity to prove the validity of his system in the eyes of Ernest Camescasse, then Prefect of Police. After a three-month trial period, he was able to identify a repeat offender by proving that the man, who had just been caught on the scene of a buglary, had indeed been arrested for robbery some time before. Despite using a false name, the criminal was betrayed by his own body measurements and quickly confessed.
Whereas the anthropometric system made it possible to distinguish between two distinct persons, it did not bring irrefutable proof of an individual’s identity. While not fully managing to fix this major flaw, Bertillon designed an incremental physical description system comprised of four areas:
- anthropometry, a field he enriched with new typological descriptions of the ear, nose, and iris;
- an incremental, detailed physical description method, which he dubbed “portait parlé” (spoken portrait) of the body and face;
- photographic description, which he continually enhanced by defining and refining a general protocol for face and profile views – in practice inventing the mug shot;
- an inventory and precise mapping of all specific marks to be found on the body – scars, tatoos, moles and the like.
In addition to implementing a double filing system – phonetic on the one hand, anthropometric on the other – Bertillon utterly revolutionized the organizational aspects of police identification bureaucracy. Soon after founding the department of “Judicial Identity” in 1893, he endeavored to apply his filing methods to the vast national archive known as the “sommiers judiciaires”, where the descriptions and penal records of all convicted criminals were stored. The central repository was radically reshaped in all its dimensions, from the architectural layout of the premises to the definition of writing, checking and research procedures, the introduction of a filing system based on colors, acronyms and abbreviations, and the harmonization of report cards.
From that moment on, Bertillon contributed to the development of a network system linking the capital to the rest of the national territory, metropolitan as well as colonial. Soon, every major city boasted its own identification office, modeled on the Parisian one, and feeding the central database, but also local or specific ones. Working closely with police detectives, Bertillon helped develop mobile tools to be used during the investigation phase: stamp-size mug shot and criminal categories albums, descriptive notices, police logs. Given his contribution to the dissemination of identification methods, to the unification of documents and tools, and to the development of a national-scale information and diffusion system, Bertillon can be considered as the architect of a new brand of police memory.
The methods developed by the Paris police, dubbed “bertillonnage”, sparked numerous applied anthropometry projects in the civil and military spheres. They also found a direct application in 1912, when “nomadic” populations (i.e. Gypsies) were required to carry a compulsory anthropometric report card. By speeding up the rational reorganization of civil registration as well as the reporting and control of mobility, police identification principles thus spread to certains categories of individuals branded as dangerous: anarchists in the 1890s, “subversive” nationals and foreigners prior to 1914, and foreigners at large, who were required to carry an ID card from 1917 onward.
A pioneer in scientific investigation, hailed by Arthur Conan Doyle – in The Hound of the Baskervilles – as having inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes, Bertillon broadened the study of identity by including all material clues found on the crime scene. While not synthesizing his work, he piled up breakthroughs ideas, inventing corpse and crime scene photography, designing new tools for collecting traces and transporting clues, etc. He thus became the first forensic expert in history – his photography, chemical, and handwriting analyses helped solve many criminal cases and firmly established his reputation.
In 1899, he testified as an expert in the Dreyfus case, producing the decisive handwriting analysis of the document allegedly proving the act of betrayal committed by the defendant. Bertillon, who was convinced that the officer was guilty, elaborated an arcane theory whereby Dreyfus would have forged his own handwriting in order to mislead the court. Bertillon thereafter found himself in the midst of a violent public campaign, vilified by the press who accused him of supporting the government’s lies and derided his competencies. The Dreyfus Affair seriously threatened Bertillon’s career, who was almost discharged from the Prefecture de Police. In spite of the support he received from Prefect Louis Lépine, he lost responsibility for the handwriting analysis laboratory, which henceforth reported to the laboratory of toxicology, and was not allowed to institute the forensic science centre he had been contemplating – this project was to be completed much later, in 1910, by his disciple Edmond Locard in Lyon.
In spite of these hurdles, which hurt both public and administrative recognition of forensic science, Bertillon’s work was hugely influential. Through innovative courses in anthropometric description and recognition (1895), physical description (1902), and technical police investigation (1912), he widely disseminated his methods among French and international police.
A fine educationalist and popularizer, Bertillon designed a whole pedagogical system, drawing heavily on pictural teaching materials. Huge posters displaying wholes series of noses, foreheads, and ears; colored billboards explaining iris classification; multiple types of faces concurred to form a sometimes spectacular iconography, including graphic photographs of corpses, wax figures replicating measurement operations, and bloody prints.
As early as 1883 in Amsterdam, Bertillon had designed the visual elements that were to be on display in numerous International and World Fairs – in Paris (1889 and 1900), Moscow (1891), Liège (1905), Dresden (1909), and Brussels (1910) – or presented at international conferences on Penitentiary Science, Penal Law, or Criminal Anthropology. A police museum, founded in Paris in 1907, presented the various techniques used in France and many European countries as well as in the Americas, China, and Japan. Thanks to this novel visual repertoire, Bertillon established an observation strategy that was to radically alter the way police investigators looked at things. Stigmatized and medicalized by the anthropological identification grid, the criminal’s body was to be considered with regard to morphological deviations from the norm.
Hence, “bertillonnage” was very popular among italian criminal anthropologists of the time, who were trying to uncover morphological and physiological stigmata that typified born-criminals according to their theory. Simultaneously, the increasing influence of ethnical considerations and criteria such as race or skin color were contributing to the dissemination of the principles of racial anthropology within policing institutions.
In 1914, Bertillon passed away just as the first Congress of International Criminal Police, held in Monaco, crowned his “Parisian report card” and started to consider the idea of a central international repository of criminal records – years before the creation of Interpol in 1923. From then on, criminalistics and identification police, both in their burgeoning phase, started to spread all over the world, while the administration of identities by police forces became a defining instrument of the modern State.
The 1885 Law on Recidivists and Judicial Anthropometry
In the early stages of the Third French Republic, the development of crime statistics brought about a new assessment of delinquency and criminality. Many studies published during the 1870s highlighted the importance of recidivism by counting, for the first time, the individuals who tended to be repeatedly arrested by the authorities – dubbed “recidivists”.
This phenomenon fueled numerous discussions among crime and prison experts of the time. The press jumped on the bandwagon, mostly in the News in brief section, presenting recidivist criminals as an “army of crime”, a “social plague”. Thus it was that crime and criminals became a significant concern in public opinion. In November 1881, President of the Council (i.e. PM) Léon Gambetta asked his Minister of Interior, Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, to prepare a bill for the banishment of multirecidivist criminals in penal colonies. The bill was submitted to the Chamber of Deputies on March 17, 1883. Passed on May 27, 1885, by an overwhelming majority (383 vs. 52), the Act on the relegation of recidivists signaled a repressive shift in penal policies in France.
However, proper enforcement of such a law required that recidivists be accurately identified each time they got arrested. Identification of criminals thus became an imperative which justified the development of a definite, permanent, and 'unforgeable' penal identity, whose definition was entrusted to the Parisian department headed by Alphonse Bertillon. The French penal system as a whole then gradually adopted the techniques developed at the Paris Préfecture de police, applying them to all individuals arrested by the police or convicted by courts.
In 1882, Alphonse Bertillon started filing police record cards based on the measurements of arrestees. From a practical standpoint, this system dispatched individual cards according to a series of about ten body measurements, each broken down into three parts in succession (small, average, and large): first, the cards were sorted out with respect to height, then arm-span, upper body height, head length, etc. This method was directly inspired by the works of Belgian scientist Adolphe Quételet, who was the first to apply statistical methods to human body measurement data.
The innovation was meant to identify recidivists without resorting to confessions or – modifiable – names and systematized the use of the body as a core element in the identification of persons. The degree of precision required by this system necessitated the use of new instruments which quickly established their presence in the regular policing tool set, such as bone calipers, height gauges, and rulers.
Between 1880 and 1900, in virtually every big metropolitan area throughout the world, police departments diligently set up anthropometric laboratories: Paris (1882), Buenos Aires (1889), Mexico City (1892), Bucharest (1893), Berlin and Madrid (1896), Chicago (1897), Lisbon (1900), London (1901), Cairo and Rome (1902).
While only applied to arrestees initially, the recording of body measurements was gradually extended to all incarcerated individuals – freed criminals, prostitutes being registered by the police, expelled foreigners, arrestees freed after receiving a mild sentence, or even vagrants, beggars, and “nomads” (gypsies) from 1912. France was (and still is) characterized by a highly centralized system that concentrated in one place, namely the Paris Prefecture de Police (in what was dubbed the sommiers judiciaires), all anthropometric record cards established in metropolitan France and in the overseas colonies, where anthropometric offices were established as well. The anthropometric system was not immediately and totally efficient: at first, only a limited number of arrestees could be processed, and record cards were no valid proof for the Courts. This explains why Alphonse Bertillon developed alternative methods for reading and transcribing the human body, such as judicial photography and “portrait parle”.
As early as the 1890s, fingerprints gradually replaced anthropometry as a filing system for police records. Despite the fact that Bertillon’s resistance delayed the dissemination of dactyloscopy in France, his “anthropometric method” is still considered a key innovation in the history of the identification of persons.
The Prefecture de Police Photography Department
In 1874, the Préfecture de police gave itself a department of Photography. While only “distinguished criminals” were portrayed in the early stages, the department gradually started to make photographic records of all individuals arrested and imprisoned at the ‘Dépôt’ – the Préfecture’s detention center. In terms of identification, however, the activities of the department quickly gave rise to a number of issues, as the non-standardized snapshots rather seemed to be inspired by portraits of the arty kind sold by professional photographers. Moreover, for want of a rigorous filing system, they were difficult to locate when needed.
On February 25, 1888, the department of Photography was merged into the department of Anthropometric Identification of the Paris Préfecture de police. Alphonse Bertillon seized the opportunity to reorganize it entirely, introducing numerous technical innovations. As new facilities were equipped, every stage of the criminal photographic recording process was rationalized.
The camera itself, the shooting, the distance between the camera and the subject, the pose of the subject – front- and side-view –, the posing seat and head rest, the brightness, all of these aspects were henceforth governed by strict procedures pursuing multiple goals, from improving the technical quality of pictures to establishing precise points of similarity and guaranteeing the shooting, development, and processing of a large quantity of pictures on a daily basis.
In 1890, his book Photography: With an Appendix on Anthropometrical Classification and Identification captured all the elements of this change of paradigm, which turned images into one of the traditional tools of identification procedures. Without ever constituting an irrefutable proof of identity, booking photographs became an important element in modern policing techniques.
Building on the technical knowledge acquired during the 1880s, Bertillon then contributed to the development of countless innovations in the field of forensic photography. To facilitate the identification of wanted suspects, he had the idea of stamp-size mug shots, collated in “DKV Albums”. Bertillon also advocated a more rational use of photographs on ID documents. Finally, he made an important contribution to crime-scene photography, developing in particular “metric photography”, which provided investigators with a very accurate picture of crime scenes and corpses.
Anthropometry in prisons
Prisons – and all detention centers generally – were instrumental in disseminating of the anthropometric system in France. As early as the 1850s, several projects launched by penal authorities recommended taking photographs of inmates, revealing an early interest for the improvement of criminal identification methods. The Commune events, in 1871, also fostered the development of this particular identification technique – yet, in the early 1880s, the photographic recording of prisoners was still based on local, heterogeneous practices. The Dépôt de la Préfecture – i.e. the Paris police headquarter cells, through which all criminals arrested in Paris had to pass at some point – thus became the very first experimentation laboratory dedicated to Bertillon's anthropometric measurements. As early as 1882, some convicts were actually identified there on the basis of anthropometric methods prior to their transfer to a prison proper, be it in Paris or elsewhere. Two years later, an initial, non-statutory measure initiated the generalization of anthropometric identification to all prisons in the Seine département. At that stage, Bertillon provided all detention centers with a handbook explaining the anthropometric method and describing the tools then in use at the Préfecture's identification bureau.
On the 13 November 1885, a bill drafted by Louis Herbette, then director of penal authorities, imposed the creation of of identification departments in all French central prisons. Just three days after this bill was passed, Herbette was in Rome with Bertillon, representing France at the first congress of criminal anthropology, where he praised the anthropometric method, highlighting its efficiency in French prisons: “In Paris as in Versailles, Melun, Poissy, Lyon, etc., the process is fully implemented. Training the wardens only took a few days. In smaller prisons, only the diameter of the head, length of the left middle finger, left small finger, and left foot are recorded in the inmate registry (registre d’écrou). These elements are sufficient to foil any attempt at identity fraud.”
In 1887, inmate registries were officially amended, and two extra lines provided to mention the measurement of “the head's diameter, foot, middle finger, nose profile, and eye color”. This initiative clearly showed the penal authorities' willingness to extend and standardize anthropometric measurements, and eagerness to completely overhaul their prison-based identification bureaus. The previous phase was dubbed a “trial period” and succeeded by a generalization of measurement practices. New sets of instructions were drafted, describing in minute detail how to procure, store and maintain measuring instruments, an official supplier was appointed to provide the index cards that all French prisons were required to use, and the necessity of giving prison staff adequate training was asserted. Simultaneously, the 5th bureau of the penal administration division (Direction de l’administration pénitentiaire) was made responsible for harmonizing the functioning of prison identification departments. In May 1888, a new bill extended the use of anthropometry to all local prisons (at département level), meaning that all penal institutions were henceforth to be converted to the novel methods of forensic identification. Several years later, to complete this measure, the Paris forensic identification department offered a specific training program to all prison wardens.
While penal authorities thus built a crucial relay for the purpose of extending anthropometry, another key aspect was the increasingly systematic exchanges of anthropometric data with local police forces, with a view to identify freed inmates or so-called “nomadic” Gypsies, in application of the Act of the 16 July 1912.
The "Portrait parlé" Method
The "Portrait parlé" ("spoken portrait") is an identification technique invented by Alphonse Bertillon in the early stages of development of his anthropometric measurements system. This method, compiled in 1893, was meant to supplement measurements and better ascertain the identity of a given person. Each section of the body and face was designated by a corresponding sign and transcribed in succession, the end result being an individual descriptive card (fiche signalétique) that could be further condensed into a notice.
Bertillon broke down each part of the human face into minute details. The nose, for example, had six key descriptive features: root, tip, dorsum, base, height and breadth. In addition to the key facial features, the hair and beard were described, as well as the arms, legs, and general appearance; "race" and skin color were mentioned too. The whole concept of the portrait parlé hinged on a precise notation system, based on an expanded list of abbreviations and a conventional terminology – an exhaustive record card could involve more than a hundred annotations. Portrait parlé featured prominently in the training about new identification techniques received by police officers; this teaching deeply influenced the ongoing professionalization of policemen and gendarmes from 1900 onward. The system itself, however, proved rather cumbersome in everyday practice.
The "portrait parlé" method remained prestigious for quite a while, as it was believed that experienced officers were able to draw on it to "identify with certainty a suspect who mingled with the crowd". However, telegraphic transmission of data was difficult – despite the invention of several dedicated codes – and no agreement was ever reached on a universal terminology, which proved fatal to the portrait parlé, whose use gradually declined during the interwar period.
Fingerprinting vs Anthropometry
The 1880-1900 period saw a gradual recognition and use of Alphonse Bertillon’s identification techniques by policing institutions in France and worldwide.
However, the principle of anthropometric filing was to be challenged, in the early 1890s, by the use of fingerprints and the alternative file organization system they enabled. Research led in Great-Britain and the British Empire by such prominent figures as William Herschel, Henry Faulds, Edward Henry, and Francis Galton, in Argentina by Juan Vucetich, and in Italy by Giovanni Gasti, revealed that fingerprints could prove extremely productive for identification purposes. All countries quickly developed simplified and rigorous methods to classify papillary traces, which carried many advantages for judicial identity departments.
At first, Bertillon incorporated fingerprints into anthropometric record cards, but was reluctant to convert the anthropometric files that had brought him international fame. Still, in 1903, he published a note presenting a novel method for classifying fingerprints, but this method was only applied to a very limited portion of the Prefecture de Police files. Paradoxically, in 1902, in the Reibel-Scheffer case, Bertillon had become one of the first forensic experts to reveal the identity of a criminal from fingerprints collected on the crime scene. Around 1910, he created within his department an identification service with the specific task of identifying such traces. He also designed a whole series of instruments for transporting fingerprint-laden pieces of evidence. From then on, he became a genuine expert in the field, delivering a host of reports in criminal cases. Whereas Bertillon fostered the diffusion of novel methods of identification within the French police forces, his opposition to fingerprint-based classification delayed the conversion of French police files to dactyloscopic principles by several decades.
International developments in policing and identification
Anthropometry, as developed in France from the 1880s, generated a lot of interest abroad, where the Paris criminal identification office soon became the “blueprint” for similar departments. In the course of a few years, the popularity of the method grew steadily, first in Europe – Italy, Switzerland, Great-Britain, and Germany – then globally (Chile, Egypt, US, etc.). Everywhere, experts in forensic identification started importing Bertillon's knowledge and techniques, which they considered universal. The said experts, entrusted with newly founded police laboratories, flocked to Paris, eager to receive Bertillon's teaching, or corresponded with him. Simultaneously, his works were being translated into English, Italian, German, and Spanish, the first building blocks in a vast, international body of knowledge on the identification of criminals. Also sparked within this knowledge network was a competitive attitude among experts as each country either adapted Bertillon's methods or developed new, alternative techniques. From the format and content of identification cards, to classification methods, through forensic analysis techniques, everything was being discussed and compared at international conferences, and published in journals on criminal anthropology, penal law, and penitentiary science. All these exchange led, sometime in the 1890s, to the idea of standardizing police modes of identification internationally. A specific proposal was made in Rome, for instance, at the 1898 International Conference for the Social Defense Against Anarchists,but not followed-up on.
Advances in fingerprinting knowledge, however—due, in particular, to the diligence of Francis Galton, Edward R. Henry, and Henry Faulds in Great-Britain; Juan Vucetich in Argentina; Gustav Roscher and Otto Klatt in Germany; Giovanni Gasti in Italy; or Hakon Jörgensen in Denmark—, gradually undermined the monopoly enjoyed by anthropometry as a classification system. Initially, the rise of dactyloscopy even made it appear as if both methods somehow antagonized each other. As a matter of fact, many experts simply agreed that dactyloscopy was more efficient, less restrictive and—crucially—cheaper. Indeed, Bertillon himself contributed to the popularity of dactyloscopy, even though converting all anthropometric files in France looked inconceivable to him.
Discrepancies, however, appeared at other levels as well, as pointed out as early as 1906 by Edmond Locard, who mentioned a “Tower of Babel” of identification. Indeed, each country seemed to have developed their own peculiar techniques, covering every aspect of criminal identification. Dozens of fingerprints classification methods, scores of individual description modes, diverging terminologies, disparate mug shot requirements were listed in the first global survey of habitual criminal identification methods (L’identification des récidivistes, 1909). Such heterogeneity made these many systems almost incompatible, and compromised the implementation of any real international policing cooperation scheme. Gradually, though, the idea of exchanging data at this level started to grow. Experts backed it in increasing numbers, citing new security imperatives specifically aimed at certain categories of criminals, such as so called “cosmopolitan” thieves, international traffickers, and Gypsies. Paradoxically, national protectionism and border securitization – with a view to better controlling foreigners – led during the 1910s to an unprecedented rapprochement of identification experts. Thus it was that concrete proposals were made in Monaco, at the first Congress of International Criminal Police, in April 1914, and that a project of Central Identification Office was discussed in France, just before the onset of WWI shattered the dream of a universal identity police force. Cross-border police cooperation, however, took up from there and led to the creation, on September 7, 1923, of the International Criminal Police Commission – later to be known as Interpol.
Identifying the dead
In 1884, Alphonse Bertillon was allowed to experiment with his anthropometric description method at the Paris Morgue. This initiative shows how important it was for him to rigorously identify individuals, dead or alive, and to convince the authorities that all births and deaths should be precisely accounted for: “despite its self-proclaimed solidarity, our human society is less exact in its accounting of the lives it is entrusted with than the Belle Jardinière department store is with the trousers it sells...”, he wrote in 1883.
Taking photographs of unknown corpses with a view to identification was by no means an unheard-of method at the time. During the Crimea War (1853-1856), as well as in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871, large-scale experiments were conducted and greatly helped to consolidate the largely empirical knowledge in the field. In Paris, when the Prefecture's department of Photography was founded in 1874, detectives would regularly pay a visit to the Morgue in order to take photographs of deceased persons. The main idea at the time was to capture faces before decay started to take its toll, so that corpses might be identified later by third parties.
Alphonse Bertillon, however, initiated systematic identification practices. He designed a whole-inclusive card that displayed the photograph, anthropometric description and fingerprints of the deceased. In addition, he designed a special photographic apparatus and “enlivening” techniques to breathe new life into corpses, enhancing the eyes and skin texture in particular. Such descriptions could be immediately matched against the information stored in the centralized anthropometric record files maintained by the identification bureau. From the 1900s onward, all court-ordered identification requests regarding deceased persons had to conform to a strict protocol designed to make such requests less unpredictable. If necessary, Bertillon would probe even deeper, eager to expose the slightest clue that might help identify a corpse. Thus it is that he conducted in-depth studies of the various professional stigmata noticeable on the hands of workers and craftsmen, establishing a precise repertoire thereof, which was subsequently stored in photographic albums. At the same time, he focused on recording the distinctive features typical of crime-scene corpses, relying in particular on metric photography processes.
The "Nomads" and the Anthropometric Notebook (1912)
Toward the end of the 19th century, French authorities realized that one of the main obstacles to an efficient control of persons was the lack of proper instruments to establish the identity of travelers with the required certainty. For this reason, identifying vagrants, fairground people and itinerants proved especially difficult.
Those categories, however, did at the time elicit worry among observers and nervousness among police forces. Meanwhile, the fears induced by this “floating population” were magnified in the popular press through multiple reports on insecurity in the countryside: the still-under-construction republican society saw these populations – whom it considered marginal, mobile, and criminal – as a controversial “enemy from the inside”. The need for assigning these “stragglers” a reliable identity became a key political issue, as evidenced by the March 1895 general census of “nomads”.
This government-led initiative, which received strong support from the parliament, marked a radical shift in the Republic’s attitude to these populations of unclear origins. Despite being rooted in the French countryside for centuries, gypsy people were still considered non-native and elicited growing hostility. They were both impacted by the multiplication of police measures against all forms of vagrancy and gradually surrounded by a specific control plan that led to the construction of “nomads” as a category.
At the turn of the century, trans-border gypsy migrations sparked a powerful movement of opposition and played an important part in triggering a slow process of surveillance and rejection. New police forces deployed on the territory – the “mobile brigades” created in 1907 – focused particularly on gypsies, and several sensational cases turned the spotlight on the lack of an identifying device that would enable proper supervision of these populations.
The idea of compelling them to carry a dedicated ID document built up gradually until in 1908, Republican deputy Marc Réville officially introduced the idea of an anthropometric record card for nomads (“carnet anthropométrique des nomades”). On July 16, 1912, the Chamber of Deputies finally passed a bill based on the main ideas of the proposal.
Alphonse Bertillon was appointed as member of the Commission set up to draft the public administration regulations mentioned in the Act. In many respects, the anthropometric record card for nomads was an extension of the identification methods and techniques that had been applied to criminals since the early 1880s. Entire populations, solely judged on their way of life, were thus compelled, for the first time ever, to carry a stigmatizing document that reinforced their exclusion from the national community.
Bertillonnage and the civil identification of populations
No sooner was the Bertillon method used with suspected repeat offenders than observers perceived how successful it could prove in matters of civil identification. As early as 1883, a newspaper article published in La Presse suggested a novel method, based on anthropometric measurements, whereby the entire French population could be identified with certainty, and even numbered, “like a herd of sheep, or the various items for sale at a well-kept store”. The idea of mentioning the anthropometric description of all individuals in the margins of their birth certificate also emerged during the 1890s. The potential use of anthropometry as a way to ascertain the true identity of persons requesting delivery of letters, securities, and money orders was also discussed at the various conferences of the Universal Postal Union held globally at the turn of the century.
Alphonse Bertillon himself was not averse to the idea of disseminating his inventions for civil and administrative identification purposes. He suggested, for instance, that the problem of child substitution in maternity wards could be solved by taking a photograph of every newborn child's ear. His most prolific contribution, however, was in matters of individual carding. Having advocated mentioning a couple of measurements on passports during periods of war, he recommended introducing the anthropometric description in “any document establishing the individual's personality, either in the interest of individuals, third parties, or governments, such as: passports; army records; insurance contracts; life annuities; bills of exchange and circulation; marriage, death, or academic certificates; letters of obedience, etc.”. In addition, Bertillon recommended supplementing identity documents with standardized photographs, making them more reliable. Many of the solutions he put forward to refine the paper identification of individuals came to fruition in 1912 with the introduction of the “anthropometric notebook for nomads” (carnet anthropométrique des nomades).
However, in the early years of the 20th century, fingerprints were increasingly considered an ideal solution to the problem of dissimulation, fake identities, and identity theft. Many countries decided to establish national dactyloscopic offices, and disseminate fingerprint-enhanced IDs. Alphonse Bertillon himself gradually conceded to the advantages of this use of fingerprints in terms of enhancing the proof value of not only ID documents, but also bank checks, for instance. Unquestionably therefore, knowledge and methods initially developed in the criminal field were applied to many acts of daily civil life under his decisive influence.
Policing and identification in the French colonial space
The influence of the Paris identification bureau in disseminating innovative methods extended far beyond metropolitan France. From the 1890s onward, identification departments – modelled on Bertillon's – were created in most major cities of the French colonial empire. They were located nearby the colonial government police or immigration authorities premises, and although their main focus was on criminals, identification bureaus also contributed to reinforce class and race barriers typical of the colonial regime. Some even developed innovative systems of their own, especially when extending these identification methods to civilian populations.
The first overseas identification bureaus were created in Algeria (1888), Tunisia (1890), and Indochina (1897). These were followed, in the 1910s and 1920s, by similar departments in the main cities of the empire – in Morocco, French West Africa (Dakar), French Equatorial Africa (Brazzaville), as well as in the island of Madagascar and, during the inter-war period, in Latakia, a port city which served as the capital of the autonomous territory of the Alawites during the French mandate on Syria and Lebanon. Two identification bureaus – Algeria and Indochina – stood out, however, both because of their assigned goals and due to their important strategic role in the implementation of imperial policies.
In October 1895, as part of a program aiming to improve security in Algeria and thus strengthen the power of administrative authorities, a new central identification bureau was created in Algiers. It became the nucleus of a network that gradually covered the whole territory, as new offices appeared in Oran and Constantine in 1895, Bône (now Annaba) and Tizi-Ouzou in 1896, Blida, Orléansville (now Chlef) and Sétif in 1898. The process of identification was then extended to all foreign immigrants, soldiers, and one broad (actually, unlimited) category: “suspects”. In addition, it was proposed to use anthropometry to remedy the lack of civil status information about the indigenous population and allow authorities to “check the identity of agitators, schemers, or sect adepts who wreaked havoc in the country and maintained a spirit of revolt among the indigenous”. During the 1920s, anthropometric records of suspects were frequently used for police control and law enforcement purposes. More generally, in all Maghreb countries, identification bureaus were thus contributing to a policy of ethnic separation and the specific surveillance of certain classes of the “indigenous” population – shoe-shine boys, porters, government employees, prostitutes, etc.
In Indochina, an anthropometric identification bureau was created in 1897 within the department of Immigration. Authorities soon turned it into a control tool aimed at “indigenous who enlisted with Europeans”. Crucially, it brought an “anthropometric response” to the issue of how to control the massive flow of Chinese workers attracted by the large-scale construction projects launched by colonial authorities. Since the 1860s, this population had been subjected to specific measures of control, in order to regulate the labour market and distribute workers across the various economic sectors. In 1874, an immigration bureau was created, which entailed new general policing measures as well as the implementation of a notebook/registry system, to make sure that all Chinese migrants were properly registered. Once the Anthropometry department had been created, this system was gradually reinforced, while dactyloscopy was being generalized as well. From 1898 to 1903, almost 110 000 Chinese immigrants were thus registered, raising an outcry from the powerful Chinese assemblies, which were very critical of such an applications of what they viewed as a crime-related technology. Colonial administrators then agreed to make these procedures more accommodating, and fingerprints were no longer required. Later on, however, the Indochina identification bureau was instrumental in implementing a specific control system targeting indigenous and Chinese populations. While avoiding techniques such as dactyloscopy, which were considered humiliating, a complex system of ethnic/professional ID cards was developed after WWI, in order to guarantee that identities would be properly administered.
Bertillon in the Eye of the Press
The development of new identification techniques by the French police immediately sparked numerous responses in the press. Indeed, ever since the 1880s, readers have been literally fascinated by criminal anthropometry. All of a sudden, the sphere of policing was teeming with scientific instruments and techniques and a solution to the problem of crime, then a key issue in the public space, seemed at hand.
Newspapers of every kind contributed to the dissemination of “bertillonnage” in the press: judicial publications recording legal and regulatory changes as well as parliamentary debates and administrative matters (Le Feuilleton du journal des débats ; Le Journal des débats politiques et littéraires ; Le Journal des débats et des décrets ; Le Constitutionnel) ; followed by the whole political spectrum of national daily newspapers (Le Figaro, Le Temps, La Presse, Le Gaulois, La Lanterne, Le Matin, L’Aurore, Le Siècle) ; Parisian papers (Le Petit parisien, Le Feuilleton de la Ville de Paris, Le Cri de Paris) and illustrated journals, which were booming at the time (in particular illustrated supplements to the Petit parisien, the Petit journal, L’Illustration, Le Grand illustré, La Vie illustrée).
While many of the articles published from 1882-1914 highlighted the innovative aspects of judicial identity et showed how these methods were helping to solve criminal cases, another, more critical movement developed simultaneously. Working class and antimilitarist papers attacked Bertillon, openly denouncing the generalized carding of the population and blaming these projects on the ruling political parties. Moreover, Bertillon’s role in the Dreyfus Affair sparked a vicious press campaign, with many articles openly challenging his competence.
In 1909, for instance, the satirical illustrated journal L’Assiette au beurre published a remarquable series of caricatures focusing on the shortcomings and complexity of the anthropometric system, as well as on the controversial personality of its inceptor.
Judicial Identity as a Culture Phenomenon
At the end of 19th century, judicial identity entered the public arena and gradually became a culture phenomenon. Journalists were clearly interested at the time in the latest person identification techniques, accumulating reports and articles on the many innovative techniques designed by the Paris Prefecture de Police.
Bertillon himself would fuel this interest, maintaining direct relationships with numerous members of the press, who were thus kept informed of the latest developments. In addition, the department he was heading took part in many international and World Fairs – in the policing innovations section. In Amsterdam (1883), Paris (1889), Moscow (1891), Chicago (1893), Antwerp (1894), Paris (1900), London (1908), Dresden (1909), and Turin (1911), the diverse international audience was introduced to an impressive display of anthropometric posters and instruments – a visual repertoire of spectacular shapes that sparked the imagination of visitors.
However, judicial identity did not just elicit respect and awe: caricaturists and cabaret artists of the time frequently poked fun at the excesses of identification, as well as Bertillon’s mistakes or failures. While the irony of saucy songwriters focused on the obsession for measurements, polemists scoffed the calculation mania and the mathematical complexity of a system that failed to quite match the ingenuity of criminals. However, at the same time, judicial identity was also becoming an icon, insofar as measurements, mug shots, fingerprinting, and anthropometric record cards came to symbolize the ongoing modernization of police forces – but also, gradually, the potential abuses of police power and state control over individuals.