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Alphonse Bertillon
Bertillon selfportrait.jpg
Self-portrait of Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of anthropometry, dated August 22, 1900.
Born (1853-04-24)April 24, 1853
Paris, France
Died February 13, 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]; April 24, 1853 – February 13, 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 March 15, 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 (Les empreintes digitales, Archives d’anthropologie criminelle, pages 36–52). 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.[4]

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". [5]


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.

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 February 13, 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. ^ As reported in, "A Fingerprint Fable: The Will and William West Case". http://www.scafo.org/library/110105.html
  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. ^ Fingerprint Identification Not Scientific Nor Infallible & Based On Fraud March 8, 2013
  5. ^ Maurice Paleologue, My Secret Diary of the Dreyfus Case, Secker and Warburg, 1957 (page 197)

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphonse_Bertillon — Please support Wikipedia.
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4 news items

Le Club de Mediapart
Mon, 14 Apr 2014 15:53:32 -0700

On est bien loin, désormais, d'Alphonse BERTILLON, qui, il y a un peu plus de cent ans, reconnut la validité des empreintes digitales dans l'identification des criminels. Mais laissons donc aux juges d'instruction et à leurs auxiliaires policiers, l ...

La Vanguardia

La Vanguardia
Wed, 09 Apr 2014 00:31:01 -0700

... nuevos actos cómicos o el uso de la fotografía en hospitales (las tristemente célebres histéricas al cuidado del neurólogo francés del XIX Jean-Martin Charcot) y comisarías (los registros gráficos exhaustivos de criminales ideados por Alphonse ...
Notícias ao Minuto
Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:41:15 -0700

Alphonse Bertillon apresentou, em 1879, à polícia francesa alguns métodos básicos, como medir o suspeito, mudando para sempre a forma como se fazia a identificação de criminosos. Descubra alguns exemplos na fotogaleria reunida pelo Memolition.


Thu, 27 Mar 2014 02:00:00 -0700

Το 1879, ο Alphonse Bertillon, εισήγαγε ένα νέο σύστημα αναγνώρισης εγκληματιών στην αστυνομία της εποχής! Το όνομα αυτού ήταν «Ανθρωπομετρία», η μέτρηση δηλαδή προσώπων και άλλων μελών του σώματος! Η μέθοδος αυτή, αποδείχθηκε τελικά πιο ...

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