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Alphonse Bertillon
Alphonse Bertillon2.jpg
Born (1853-04-24)24 April 1853
Paris, France
Died 13 February 1914(1914-02-13) (aged 60)
Münsterlingen, Switzerland
Occupation law enforcement officer and biometrics researcher
Parents Louis Bertillon (father)
Class on the Bertillon system in France in 1911
Class on the Bertillon system in France in 1911

Alphonse Bertillon (French: [bɛʁtijɔ̃]; 24 April 1853 – 13 February 1914) was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who applied the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement creating an identification system based on physical measurements. Anthropometry was the first scientific system used by police to identify criminals. Before that time, criminals could only be identified by name or photograph. The method was eventually supplanted by fingerprinting.[1]

He is also the inventor of the mug shot. Photographing of criminals began in the 1840s only a few years after the invention of photography, but it was not until 1888 that Bertillon standardized the process.


Bertillon was born in Paris.[2] He was a son of statistician Louis-Adolphe Bertillon and younger brother of the statistician and demographer Jacques Bertillon.

After being expelled from the Imperial Lycée of Versailles, Bertillon drifted through a number of jobs in England and France, before being conscripted into the French army in 1875. Several years later, he was discharged from the army with no real higher education, so his father arranged for his employment in a low-level clerical job at the Prefecture of Police in Paris. Thus, Bertillon began his police career on 15 March 1879 as a department copyist.

Being an orderly man, he was dissatisfied with the ad hoc methods used to identify the increasing number of captured criminals who had been arrested before. This, together with the steadily rising recidivism rate in France since 1870,[3] motivated his invention of anthropometrics. His road to fame was a protracted and hard one, as he was forced to do his measurements in his spare time. He used the famous La Santé Prison in Paris for his activities, facing jeers from the prison inmates as well as police officers.

Frontispiece from Bertillon's Identification anthropométrique (1893), demonstrating the measurements needed for his anthropometric identification system.

Bertillon also created many other forensics techniques, including forensic document examination, the use of galvanoplastic compounds to preserve footprints, ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering.

The near 100 year old standard of comparing 16 ridge characteristics to identify latent prints at crime scenes against criminal records of fingerprint impressions was based on claims in a 1912 paper published in France by Bertillon.[4] The images of fingerprints which Bertillon published in his paper and upon which his claims were based were found later to have been altered and were forgeries.[5]

Bertillon and the Dreyfus Affair[edit]

Bertillon was a witness for the prosecution in the Dreyfus affair in 1894 and again in 1899. He testified as a handwriting expert and claimed that Alfred Dreyfus had written the incriminating document (known as the "bordereau"). However, he was not a handwriting expert, and his convoluted and flawed evidence was a significant contributing factor to one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice—-the condemnation of the innocent Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Using a complex system of measurements, he attempted to prove that Dreyfus had disguised his handwriting by imitating his own handwriting as if someone else was doing so, so that if anyone thought the bordereau was in Dreyfus's hand, he would be able to say that someone else had forged his writing. Both courts martial evidently accepted this, and Dreyfus was convicted. The verdict of the second court martial caused a huge scandal, and it was eventually overturned. Bertillon was by many accounts regarded as extremely eccentric. According to Maurice Paleologue, who observed him at the second court-martial, Bertillon was "certainly not in full possession of his faculties". Paleologue goes on to describe Bertillon's argument as "a long tissue of absurdities", and writes of "his moonstruck eyes, his sepulchral voice, the saturnine magnetism" which made him feel that he was "in the presence of a necromancer".[6]


Bertillon is referenced in the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which one of Holmes's clients refers to Holmes as the "second highest expert in Europe" after Bertillon. Also, in The Naval Treaty, speaking of the Bertillon system of measurements Holmes himself "...expressed his enthusiastic admiration of the French savant".

In the Arsène Lupin story The Escape of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, Lupin escapes by exploiting the same flaws in anthropometry that led to its eventual disuse. In A Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn touches on the system in Chapter 14, Part 1.

Bertillon is also referenced in the Caleb Carr novel The Alienist. The Isaacson brothers, who are detectives, mention that they are trained in Bertillon system. The Bertillon Measurements are also mentioned in the Ross MacDonald Novel, The Drowning Pool and Yves Fey's mystery, Floats the Dark Shadow.

Bertillon appears in Eric Zencey's novel Panama.

Bertillon is the main character of third episode of Czech TV series "The Adventures of Criminology" called "Bertillonage".

Bertillon died 13 February 1914 in Münsterlingen, Switzerland.

Illustration from "The Speaking Portrait" (Pearson's Magazine, Vol XI, January to June 1901) demonstrating the principles of Bertillon's anthropometry.

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ Olsen, Robert D., Sr (November 1987). "A Fingerprint Fable: The Will and William West Case". Identification News 37 (11). 
  2. ^ Rhodes, Henry T.F. Rhodes (1956). Alphonse Bertillon: Father of Scientific Detection. New York: Abelard-Schuman. p. 27. 
  3. ^ Ginzburg 1984, p. 105
  4. ^ "Les empreintes digitales", Archives d’anthropologie criminelle, pp. 36–52
  5. ^ Miller, Clifford G. (8 March 2013) Fingerprint Identification Not Scientific Nor Infallible & Based On Fraud. The Law Society Advocacy Section Newsletter.
  6. ^ Paleologue, Maurice (1957) My Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case, Secker and Warburg, p. 197

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphonse_Bertillon — Please support Wikipedia.
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62 videos foundNext > 

French 4 AP - Alphonse Bertillon Presentation

This is a video for a presentation in French 4 AP about Alphonse Bertillon.

Bertillon Measurement Lab

Bertillon Measurement Lab performed by Hoover High School Forensic Science Class.

20 Februar 1883 Alphonse Bertillon identifiziert Straftäter

Sistema de Alphonse Bertillon agregado a meios tecnológicos, computacionais.

Fonte: Globo Vídeos.

13. Februar 1914: Todestag des Kriminalisten Alphonse Bertillon


Criminal Types Marie Galante (1934).wmv

Criminal Typologies developed by Alphonse Bertillon for the French police in the 1890s used cranial and facial measurements to identify criminal types and ra...

Vivaldi - Inverno

Si vede solo ciò che si osserva, e si osserva solo ciò che già esiste nella mente. - Alphonse Bertillon -

Lire dans les pensées, c'est possible ? (FR / US subtitles)

Lire dans les pensées : c'est un fantasme constamment remis à jour par la recherche scientifique. Tout le monde en rêve. Les avancées en sciences cognitives ...

Eva and Kim at the Bertillon in PARIS! Follow our travel Adventures!

Video uploaded from my mobile phone.

Bertillon 03 10 2013

Bertillon ??? c'est terminé plus rien plus d'âmes des rocailles des travaux que l'on attendait plus un pan de mur encore debout des ronces des gravas rien pl...

62 videos foundNext > 

5 news items

Boing Boing

Boing Boing
Wed, 27 Aug 2014 04:03:45 -0700

In the 1880s, French anthropologist and Parisian police records clerk Alphonse Bertillon designed a system of identification based on measurements of parts of the face and body, inventorying physical characteristics, such as tattoos or scars, and ...
Cleveland Jewish News (blog)
Mon, 25 Aug 2014 19:13:35 -0700

1899: When the court martial of Captain Dreyfus resumed today. Alphonse Bertillon, Chief of the Anthropometric Department of the Paris Prefecture of Police continued his testimony in which he continued to contend that Dreyfus was the author of “the ...
Monde Diplomatique
Sat, 23 Aug 2014 13:17:08 -0700

Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), fondateur de l'école italienne de criminologie, défendra ainsi sa thèse du « criminel né » (1876), et Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) inventera l'anthropométrie judiciaire. La croyance en l'association d'une région cérébrale ...

Le Figaro

Le Figaro
Thu, 21 Aug 2014 22:05:05 -0700

Sur celle-ci, le criminologue Alphonse Bertillon repère une empreinte digitale qu'il compare à celles de 257 employés du Louvre, relevées pour l'occasion. Peine perdue. Le voleur n'est toujours pas identifié et le directeur du Louvre, Théophile Homolle ...
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 02:19:17 -0700

'Antropometrijski portret je standardizirana metoda fotografiranja kojom se umanjuju pogreške pri mjerenju i opservacijama lica, koju je u 19. stoljeću izumio Alphonse Bertillon. Uz određene modifikacije, takav način fotografiranja koristi se i danas ...

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