Division of Criminal Justice Services

The Bertillon System

In 1893, New York State's Prison Department was experiencing the same difficulties as every other police agency and criminal institution throughout the world. There was simply no accurate way to identify, and thereby appropriately incarcerate, recidivists. Too many hardened criminals were being sentenced as first offenders.

Seeking to solve this problem, the Superintendent of Prisons, Austin Lathrop, sent his Chief Clerk, Charles K. Baker, to Europe to study the Bertillon System.

Bertillonage, the invention of French ethnologist Alphonse Bertillon, had been introduced in Paris ten years earlier and by the time of Baker's visit had become the standard method of criminal Identification throughout most of Europe.

Bertillon, born in 1853, was a rebellious young man who had tried a variety of careers before his family's influence secured a position for him with the Prefecture of the Paris Police on March 15, 1879.

A life-long interest in anthropology coupled with the alarming disarray of the police department's identification system led Bertillon to begin experimenting with ways to accurately identify criminals.

Bertillon took measurements of certain bony portions of the body, among them the skull width, foot length, cubit, trunk and left middle finger. These measurements, along with hair color, eye color and front and side view photographs, were recorded on cardboard forms measuring six and a half inches tall by five and a half inches wide.

By dividing each of the measurements into small, medium and large groupings, Bertillon could place the dimensions of any single person into one of 243 distinct categories. Further subdivision by eye and hair color provided for 1,701 separate groupings.

Taking Bertillon Measurements. Upon arrest, a criminal was measured, described and photographed. The completed card was indexed and placed in the appropriate category. In a file of 5,000 records, for example, each of the primary categories would hold only about 20 cards. It was therefore not difficult to compare the new record to each of the other cards in the same category. If a match was discovered, the new offense was recorded on the criminal's card.

Bertillon submitted a report detailing his system but the Prefecture, thinking it was a joke, ignored it.

In the winter of 1881, the Prefecture retired and his replacement agreed to implement the system. It was officially adopted by the Paris Police in 1882 and quickly spread throughout France, Europe and the rest of the world. In 1887 it was introduced into the United States by Major R. W. McClaughry, warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary.

Standardization of the Bertillon System throughout the civilized world meant, for the first time in recorded history, that any individual, once properly classified, could be positively identified at a later date. The benefit to police agencies was incalculable; claims that this system would deplete the ranks of the professional criminals, however, were somewhat overly-optimistic and premature.

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