Criminal Identification: The Bertillon System

Alphonse Bertillon created his own Bertillon card

The Bertillon System, developed by French anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon in 1879, was a technique for describing individuals using photographs and measurements of specific physical characteristics. The system was used to track and identify suspects and criminals.

Police used special instruments to take precise measurements of a criminal’s arms, ears, nose, trunk, head, face, feet and hands, as well standing height, sitting height, distance between fingertips and arms outstretched. Distinctive features including eye color, scars and deformities were noted. Each measurement was carefully recorded on a standardized card, which also included mug shots, and placed in orderly files. From a mass of details, it was possible to sift and sort the cards down to a small pile of possible matches. A final identification was confirmed with the attached mug shots.

Detective George Koestle measuring the ear, hand, foot and head of Detective Frank Texler

The Plain Dealer touted the new system in an extensive article on July 31, 1898: “Another great stride forward has been made in the local police department by the adoption and use of the Bertillon system of photographing and recording the distinguishing features of crooks. Cleveland…has discovered the value of the world famous system and the Cleveland Police Department is now a member of the International Bertillon System Association. Under the new system…it is utterly impossible for a crook to deny he was ever before arrested, when taken into custody, if he was ever examined under the Bertillon system. If a former Cleveland crook happens to be arrested in England, the authorities in both places will be assured of the man being the same inside of three days.”

Plain Dealer, 7/31/1898

In 1898, ten US cities participated in the Bertillon association: Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Toledo, Columbus, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. “From each of these cities duplicate cards and photographs are sent to the headquarters, where they are at once compared for duplicates. From these original duplicates still other duplicates are made and sent to the general headquarters at Paris. Thus it will be seen that in a certain sense the crooks are always in sight of “the eye that never sleeps.”

“A new gallery has been erected on the third floor of the Central Police Station on Champlain street and it is there that the system is being tried. It consists of an operating room, dark room and room in which measurements are taken. George Koestle, a police officer, who is an expert photographer, has charge of the gallery, and has done some good work since the system went into effect July 6 last. Koestle has no assistance and at times has considerable work to do.”

Bureau of Criminal Identification room in 1930, with filing cabinets for Bertillon cards, the mug shot array and the chair and camera used for mug shots.

Delicate instruments are used in securing the shape and size of the head, ear, nose, fingers, hands and feet. In each case the measurements are taken on the left side of the subject…All measurements are taken in centimeters and millimeters in order that the smaller fraction my be recorded.”

“Of ears there are said to be over 800 different shapes which can be recognized without the aid of instruments, but when measured no ear is like that of any other. The varying shades of eyes are shown on the Bertillon card with special figures and characters, which to the ordinary person are as Greek. Every measurement is so carefully taken that a record can be looked up in a very few minutes.”

Plain Dealer, 7/31/1898

“Every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth.” – Alphonse Bertillon

Bertillon Card for Edward Rutheven, who shot and killed Cleveland Patrolman John Shipp in 1900.

Bertillon card for Charles Heines, front
Bertillon Card for Charles Heines, back

Posted in