A Full Measure

The Rise & Fall of the Father of The Modern Mug Shot

by Steven Gomez

A self-portait by M. Bertillon himself.

When you kick off your shoes and binge-watch your favorite procedural, there are a few must haves for your viewing pleasure. A perp is escorted, hands cuffed behind his back, through a busy precinct office. And he must be fingerprinted and photographed.

It’s possible, however, that things could have gone differently. What if instead of being printed, a team of officers rushed in, like a pit crew at the Indy 500, each armed with tape measures, and took his measurements like tailors fitting a groom for a tux?

The world of police forensics, not unlike the real world, is influenced by politics, high-profile success, and public support. Headlines make great policework.

And in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the headlines were sensational.

* * * * *

The records department of the Prefecture of Police of Paris in the 1890’s was not so much as a records department as a records dump. Photographs, loose files, and even physical evidence made its way into the department, never to been seen again.

Stray papers mixed with random photos, scraps of paper littered the floors, and when room was needed on a desk or chair, casework piles were often swept onto the floor, fair game for the rats and cockroaches that made their home in the cavernous office.

For a man such as Alphonse Bertillon, working in such a place was sheer hell. But then again, it WAS work, and also for a man like Alphonse Bertillon, it was work he was lucky to have.

Bertillon was the son of a famous physician and statistician, Louis-Adolphe Bertillon, a respected scholar and a man of political influence.

Louis-Adolphe Bertillon’s oldest son was Jacques Bertillon, himself a brilliant physician who had followed in his father’s footsteps and was on his way to great things.

Alphonse was Louis-Adolphe’s other son.

A family black sheep who had left school early, failed to make an impression in the military, and had left a wake of menial jobs behind him, Alphonse was thought to be “drifting” by his father. Using his influence, his father found a position with the Paris Police, deep in the bowels of their outdated and underutilized offices and had procured a job for his son there. It was not a place that Alphonse Bertillon would ever choose for himself.

A compulsive and meticulous man, Alphonse went to work cleaning and organizing the files almost out of self-preservation rather than efficiency. Soon the files were catalogued and grouped. The peculiar man in the Prefect’s office began to cross reference them, for the first time making sense out of the Paris police records as well as giving prosecutors a way to call up the known records of crimes and individuals.

His work there did not go unnoticed.

As Bertillon continued with his endeavors, he postulated certain things regarding criminals. In their identification, the police had to rely on what they already knew about an individual or what witnesses or even the individual was willing to share.

It was a messy, imprecise way to identify criminals, and like the police records, it was also something Bertillon felt he could fix.

As criminals came into the jails, Bertillon began to take pictures of them and record their measurements. He postulated that the measurements of certain body parts, such as the length of a forearm, the width of a jaw the length of a calf would be a constant for an adult, barring physical trauma or surgery. The modern practice of this would be called “biometrics.”

Alphonse Bertillon received little support for his efforts and no funding. Working during his off hours, Bertillon would visit La Sante’ Prison as well as local morgues to measure and catalogue bodies. Usually he was mocked and jeered by the prisoners and often also by the police themselves.

He continued to file and update every prisoner he came across, assembling files of their measurements, physical deformities or unusual markings, as well as photographs of the subject, both front views and profiles.


Bertillon knew that although the face could be changed, some physical features, such as the lobe of an ear or the shape of a jaw, could only be changed by extreme measures or trauma. He believed that his system, which consisted of exacting measurements, mug shots, footprints, and any other physical records found at the crime, would become a foolproof method of establishing criminal identity.

And he believed in his system so much that he named it after himself.

Now that he had the system, this “Bertillonage,” he needed a way to prove it to a skeptical public as well as a doubting police community.

The wait was not long.

In northern France a rotted, decomposing corpse had washed ashore and caused quite a sensation during a lull in the news. Police experts were called upon, but the sate of the body was such that identification proved almost impossible.

That was where Bertillon came in.

He subjected the body to his exacting measurements and found that they matched a man who had served time in prison. In fact, it was the body of one of the prisoners that Bertillon had earlier measured.

His system gave the press the name and history of the criminal and even furnished them with a photograph of the man. “Bertillonage” proved a resounding success and newspapers were more than happy to interview the man who was suddenly a master of the criminal mind.

Soon use of Bertillon’s system spread throughout Europe and records departments everywhere went from the disorderly chaos rivaling the Paris Police Records, or even worse, to models of efficiency. And those records now included mugshots and suspect measurements.

In the media Bertillon’s celebrity status grew exponentially and reporters competed to interview the great man. News stories referred to him as a “Master Criminalist” and he was called as an expert in major criminal cases. His methods and systems were mentioned in mystery stories and pulp adventures. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes is called the “Second highest expert in Europe” after Bertillon and his methods are cited in Sax Rohmer’s The Emperor of America.

In the handful of years following his successful identification of the famous corpse, Alphonse Bertillon became the most recognized figure in the world regarding criminal identification.

He had only one place to go from there.

A few events facilitated Bertillon’s star to fall. The first was in police stations around the world. While the Bertillon system of identification was accurate, it was extremely hard to train others in its use and consistency needed to implement it. Often police officers were unsure where to measure a suspect’s forearm and neck, and even tougher to get an accurate measurement from an uncooperative suspect. Police were eager to find a substitute to the cumbersome “Bertillonage.”

Another stumble of the system came in a rather public display. A man named Will West was arrested for murder. Using the Bertillon system, West was arrested and charged, his doubt seemingly without question. His measurements were recorded, and his mugshot was matched.

Except in this case, authorities already had a file on a “W. West.” “William” West. And this man, William West, was already in prison. And according to the Bertillon method, the two men were exactly identical.

While today there is some confusion whether the two men, William West and Will West, were related, there is no mistake that they were exact doppelgangers for each other.

In looks, height, and measurement the two men were identical. The only method of telling the two apart, a method that was quickly gaining support in the law enforcement community, were by their fingerprints.

And once again, in the public eye, the Bertillon system had failed.

In the years before, men such as Sir Frances Galton has championed the idea of using fingerprints as a means of identification, and police considered fingerprints as a much friendlier process than Bertillonage.

Despite espousing the “inferiority” of fingerprints to his system, Bertillon was preasured to include them into his system, although he considered the prints, as well as the men who studied them, beneath him.

The final nail in the coffin for Bertillonage was in the Dreyfus Affair. In the highest profile case of the century, Alphonse Bertillon was called  as a handwriting expert in the treason case of Alfred Dreyfus. In the case, Bertillon testified that in his expert opinion, the documents that proved Dreyfus guilty were indeed the real article. On that evidence Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life at Devil’s Island.

After Dreyfus served five years on the Island evidence was revealed that Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, a major in the French Army, was the actual culprit and Dreyfus was innocent.

It was also revealed that the documents that Bertillon had authenticated were crude, clumsy forgeries. The case further showed that Bertillon, while an expert with biometrics, was a complete sham as a handwriting expert.

In the end fingerprints proved to be the more reliable form of identification, as well as one every law enforcement agency in the world could use.

Alphonse Bertillon continued to work in forensics for the rest of his life. He developed a process for preserving footprints at a crime scene as well as device that measured the force used in breaking and entering. And although he never again received anything close to the amount of celebrity his “Bertillonage” had brought him, his theories still maintain a presence in police work.

And if arrested, you will still have your mugshot taken, but you will be spared the humiliation of your waist measured.

* * * * *

Respectfully submitted by Steven Gomez, April 2018. Steve is the host and Chief Investigator of the Noir Factory Podcast. The Noir Factory Podcast covers noir, hard-boiled fiction, as well as true crime. Visit their website and get your FREE copy of the Secrets of the Noir Factory today!

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