When people think of famous criminals, there’s one thing that comes to mind immediately, no matter who they were or what they did. If a criminal was caught and tried for a crime sometime after the mid-1800s, their face was preserved in what we know as a “mug shot.”

The seemingly simple forward and profile appearances came about shortly after the standardized implementation of the photograph itself, making them one of the world’s first widespread professional photographing careers.

And they were invented as an add-on for the Bertillon System.

Alphonse Bertillon was the forefather of anthropometry in law enforcement and helped forward the methodology of cataloging and identifying criminals using a variety of specific techniques which went beyond the standards of simple description and reception.

He innovated for the sake of protecting and serving for the peace and safety of others to make sure no criminal could escape justice so long as they had their face.

His method was so effective that the only thing that ever managed to replace it was fingerprinting, which he also helped to standardize.




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10 /10 Inauspicious Start

Alphonse was born in Paris, France, in 1853. His father was a medical researcher and statistician.

Alphonse was the slower to develop of his family. He was expelled from the Lycee of Versailles and was aimless for much of his youth.

Even conscription into the French army ended early when he was discharged and sent out with no higher education to speak of. His father got him a clerical job at a Paris police office. He worked as a copyist during that time.



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9 /10 Defining Standards

Alphonse was a very orderly man who sought strictness and clarity in his work, and in the 1880s, he wasn’t getting it.

He noted the very crude organization of the police department’s record-keeping when identifying recidivist – or repeat – criminals.

So, he decided to take matters into his own hands and proposed a series of identifying traits and characteristics which could be measured, logged, and re-used to appropriately re-identify criminals who were caught a second time.






8 /10 Hard Sell

Trying to get the Parisian police to do more work was met with general jeering, but Alphonse persevered and started his practice on his own.

He measured convicts at the La Sante Prison in Paris against all mockery from prisoners and the guards.

His system first took shape and would later serve to appropriately and adequately recapture the men based on their defined characteristics.

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7 /10 The Bertillon System

Bertillon’s self-named system took a series of measurements of body parts that were immutable and unchangeable outside of direct mutilation.

These included head length and breadth, middle finger length, left foot length, and the cubit length – which is the length from the elbow to the fingertip.

In addition, once the technology was in place, he added photographs taken head-on and from the side of a convict’s face, which we now know as “mugshots,” to fully capture the identity of a criminal on the day of their internment.

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6 /10 L'Affaire

Bertillon was one of the many legal experts who observed and participated in the Dreyfus Affair, which became a massive scandal of French legal undertaking and the extreme inequalities at work within their native system at the time.

He was called in as a handwriting expert to examine an incriminating document known as the “bordereau.”

Bertillon implemented his system of measurements to prove somehow that he forged the letter, but in the manner of someone developing his handwriting.

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5 /10 Devil's Island

Despite Bertillon’s best efforts and having no background in handwriting analysis, he put forward his theories to the court-martial committee, who eventually agreed with him – until the decision was overturned, thus prompting the entire affair to be marked as a legal scandal of the highest degree.

Bertillon insisted that his system was based on mathematics and algebra and had no flaws beyond its moment-to-moment implementation, but several renowned mathematicians, including Jules Henri Poincare, disagreed.

Alphonse Bertillon

4 /10 Saturnine Magnetism

Alphonse was known as something of an eccentric, even going back to his days as a conscript. During the Dreyfus affair, he was not the legal professional that the rest of the assembly expected.

He was rambling, meandering, not quite in complete control of himself. His argument itself was described as a “long tissue of absurdities.”

It was described in many ways as a passive and deep personality, much to the point that Maurice Paleologue described being around Alphonse as if “being in the presence of a necromancer.”

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3 /10 Standardization Of The Bertillon System

Despite his social shortcomings, Bertillon’s system became more popular and effective overseas.

It was used in American states to correctly catalog and identify criminals during the tail end of the Western Expansion era.

This proved invaluable to law enforcement who were overrun with all types of crime, but it also exposed one of the system’s underthought flaws: how it handled criminals who were not men of a certain height, build, proportion and race.

Alphonse Bertillon

2 /10 Minneapolis Mamie

The first well-known implementation of the Bertillon system in America was in Minneapolis in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Black women would work as prostitutes, thus flaunting the law, and would be categorized and logged using the Bertillon system.

However, they could exploit flaws in the design, notably that the measurements taken didn’t account for the difference in female body types and relied on their real names.

Many sex workers, therefore, took the alias of “Mamie” after Mamie Knight – the only surviving mugshot of one such alley worker that the department had.

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1 /10 Fact And Fiction

Bertillon died in 1914, shortly after writing an affirmation overusing fingerprints as part of his system, which would then go on to be implemented and standardized to even further success in the future.

Most of his system fell out of use, but mugshots remain one of the most reliable identifying tools for law enforcement.

Bertillon was famously referenced in Sherlock Holmes, where the eponymous detective was referred to as the “second highest expert in Europe” after Bertillon, to which Homles was inclined to agree.

His system was also combated by the fictional thief Arsene Lupin, who exploited its flaws to escape his capture, predicting the system’s general loss of favor over time.

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