Division of Criminal Justice Services

The New York State Bertillon Bureau

Charles K. Baker studied the Bertillon files in Paris and London and returned to New York with a copy of the second edition of Bertillon's System, published in France in 1893. The book, written in French, had to be forwarded to Major McClaughry in Illinois who supervised its translation into English.

Florence de Forest On June 28, 1893, Florence de Forest was hired to the position of indexer for the Bertillon System. Under the supervision of Baker, de Forest and another clerk, Frederick Hicks Duel, designed an office which could accommodate the Bertillon files. Blue prints of their design were then drawn up and adopted by the Prison Department.

By the beginning of 1896, preparations for construction of the files were completed. All that remained was for the State Legislature to create the bureau and for Major McClaughry to finalize translation of the Bertillon instruction book.

Although there were other Bertillon Identification Bureaus operating in the United States by 1896, New York's claimed the distinction of being the first to intertwine the science of identification with the politics of legislation when, on May Ninth of that year, a law was passed authorizing the recording and filing of measurements of all inmates "confined or hereinafter received under sentence in the various State Prisons, Reformatory and penitentiaries."

The Bureau of Identification was thereby created within the State Department of Prisons and set up in Room 111 of the New York State Capitol building.

This proved to be no small task. In his 1896 annual report, Superintendent Lathrop noted that the labor to introduce the Bertillon System, due to its being "new and poorly understood," was greater than either he or the Legislature had anticipated.

First Bertillon Card A program for teaching the intricacies of the Bertillon system, as well as criminal photography, was established at Sing Sing Prison on July 15, 1896, and on September 1, the measuring, describing and photographing of 8,000 inmates was officially begun.

Prisoners were measured at each of the State's prisons and duplicate Bertillon Cards were created. One copy was kept at the prison; the other was sent to the Albany Office to be indexed and added to the master Bertillon File.

NYS Bertillon Bureau - 1902 After his trip to Europe and initial involvement in setting up the Identification Unit, Baker returned to his other duties, leaving the fledgling bureau in the hands of Miss de Forest and two female clerks.

By the end of the first year of operation, 16,000 Bertillon cards were on file and 131 criminals received at State Prisons as "first offenders" were found to have prior records. These statistics, coupled with a decrease in New York's prison population and an alleged increase in the prison population of an unnamed, neighboring state, led Superintendent Lathrop to suggest that the Bertillon System was discouraging criminals from operating in New York.

Though encouraged by the initial successes of the system, the Superintendent understood that its full potential had yet to be realized and called upon the State Legislature to expand its use.

Without citing any statistics to support his claim, the new Superintendent of State Prisons, Cornelius V. Collins, in his annual report for 1898, promoted as fact Lathrop's suggestion of a Bertillon-influenced migration of criminals to other states "in which they can more safely pursue their vocation." This, he asserted, proved the need for a national central bureau of identification, headquartered, naturally, in Albany, New York.

His proposal, though seemingly ambitious for such an inexperienced agency, was not without merit. New York's bureau, after only two years of operation, contained 24,000 Bertillon cards, making it by far the largest in the country. Unfortunately, the idea was not a new one.

Attempts to establish a national identification bureau had begun as early as 1871, when a meeting of police executives took place in St. Louis, Missouri. Politics and internal disagreements, however, prevented any real progress at this time.

Efforts were renewed in 1896, and a resolution was made by the National Chiefs of Police Union which resulted in the establishment of the National Bureau of Identification, forerunner of the FBI, in Chicago on October 20, 1897 -- a full year before Superintendent Collins made his proposal.

When no outside support for an Albany-based central bureau materialized, the State Legislature, in 1900, passed a law allowing the Prison Department to accept Bertillon cards from nearly every penal institution in the United States and Canada. By the following year, twelve hundred out-of-state cards had been received, enabling Superintendent Collins to call New York's Bertillon file "the Central Bureau for New York State, 17 other States and Canada since 1900."

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