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November 30, 2013

Vintage Photographs Reveal How New York Police Measuring a Criminal in the 1900s

Imagine you have to correctly identify a criminal without technology or legitimate lab. What if you had to decide whether someone is a killer or not, using only black and white, unfocused photographs and some witness’ testimony?

In 1879 Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer and biometrics researcher, introduced police to a brand new system of identifying criminals. Anthropometry, or simply measuring a person, proved to be a little bit more effective than previous methods of recognizing suspects only by photographs and names.

This system, known as the Bertillon system, or bertillonage, quickly gained wide acceptance as a reliable, scientific method of criminal investigation. In 1884 alone, French police used Bertillon’s system to help capture 241 repeat offenders, which helped establish the system’s effectiveness. It has been introduced to US police on 1906.

The method was eventually supplanted by fingerprinting, but his other contributions like the mug shot and the systematization of crime-scene photography remain in place to this day.

(Photos: Library of Congress)


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