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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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58 news items


Fri, 17 Oct 2014 09:52:30 -0700

Perhaps the best known investigator of the 1800s was Alphonse Bertillon. He, like Gross, insisted on photographing crime scenes, and eventually came up with an orderly way to grid out a crime scene, so the scene could be reconstructed. He also came up ...

Le Nouvel Observateur

Le Nouvel Observateur
Sat, 18 Oct 2014 04:13:00 -0700

Il s'appelait Alphonse Bertillon et a notamment systématisé la photo anthropométrique. Et tandis que, chez nous, ces photos prises par les flics après arrestation sont rarement autorisées à la diffusion dans la presse, elles sont monnaie courante aux ...
Thu, 09 Oct 2014 05:35:34 -0700

Et, avec les progrès considérables de la police scientifique résultant en particulier de la découverte de l'ADN et de son décodage, il ne s'agit plus seulement, comme à l'époque d'Alphonse BERTILLON, des empreintes digitales. Le moindre poil de barbe ...


Wed, 01 Oct 2014 13:24:27 -0700

La « photographie portrait » telle qu'on la connaît aujourd'hui, en vignette, individuelle, celle que l'on obtient en quelques secondes en insérant quelques pièces dans une fente de photomaton, existe et se démocratise grâce à Alphonse Bertillon.


Tue, 21 Oct 2014 00:41:15 -0700

... [보안뉴스 원병철] '미스터리한 사건, 그 현장으로 당신을 초대합니다.' 한 장의 초대장이 편집부 앞으로 전해졌다. 얼마 전 발생한 살인사건 수사에 직접 참여해 사건을 분석하고, 범인을 프로파일링해 잡아달라는 내용이었다. 그리고 초대장을 발송한 곳은 표 ...
Ad-Hoc-News (Pressemitteilung)
Tue, 21 Oct 2014 19:22:53 -0700

Weitere Nachricht dazu von mentalfloss.com: Alphonse Bertillon was a French forensic documentarian who developed or improved upon several methods of identifying criminals and solving crimes. Some of those methods, such as the mug shot, are still in ...
Las Provincias
Tue, 30 Sep 2014 14:56:15 -0700

A Alphonse Bertillon se le conoce por haber creado un sistema antropométrico que se encargaba de medir la altura, el busto, la cabeza, la anchura de las mejillas y la longitud del oído derecho, del codo y el pie izquierdo, así como del dedo medio de ...


Sat, 27 Sep 2014 05:56:15 -0700

Die Aufnahme des "Mug" (britischer Slangausdruck für "Visage") sollte den mutmaßlichen Täter für Opfer und Ermittler gleichermaßen identifizierbar machen, das war die Idee. Der französische Kriminalist Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) standardisierte die ...

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