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December 2, 2016

The Groundbreaking Work of Alphonse Bertillon, the Man Who Invented the Mug Shot

For more than a century, mug shots have helped police catch criminals. Those photos of a person's face and profile trace their roots to Paris in the late 19th century. They were taken by a French criminologist named Alphonse Bertillon, and his techniques set the template that police use today.

French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon's (left) techniques for identifying criminals in the late 19th century set the template that police use today. (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

In 1879, Alphonse Bertillon invented a method that combined detailed measurement and classification of unique features with frontal and profile photographs of suspects—and which recorded the information on standardized cards in orderly files. Bertillon's system was based on five primary measurements: (1) head length; (2) head breadth; (3) length of the middle finger; (4) the length of the left foot; (5) the length of the "cubit" (the forearm from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger). Each principal heading was further subdivided into three classes of "small," "medium" and "large." The length of the little finger and the eye color were also recorded. Bertillon's system was later overtaken by fingerprinting, but the Bertillon "mug shot" endures.

Police stations would hang charts showing rows of eyes, ears, noses and other body parts to help officers identify suspects using Bertillon's system. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

He wasn't the first to introduce mug shots to police, but he did standardize the way photos were taken and added the profile mug shot so police could zero in on a suspect's unique features.

The mug shots were part of a broader system of measuring and comparing body parts to help police departments organize thousands of criminal records. In 1884, Bertillon's system helped Parisian police identify 241 repeat offenders.

His reputation, though, faded as more police departments learned that fingerprinting was a simpler way to identify people. Still, his style of mug shots became the standard. Jonathan Finn, a police photography expert who wrote Capturing the Criminal Image, says he is "still very much with us" today in other ways.

"Whenever you go through an airport or at a train station and anything else and somebody asks to see your identification document, that all has roots in the late 1800s and the work of people like Bertillon and his contemporaries," Finn says.

It's one that may have forgotten about Bertillon's name — but is still holding on to his mug shots.

Henri Félix Camille Beaulieu, 23 (1894)

Fernand Alphonse Biais, 41 (1894)

André Eugène Bligny, 58 (1894)

Auguste Bordes, 15 (1894)

Charles Chatel, 25 (1894)

Jean Cros, 19 (1894)

Louis Dufour, 37 (1894)

Felix Feneon

Eugène François Job, 31 (1894)

Edouard Léon Leboucher, 43 (1894)

Émile Maince, 19 (1894)

Louis Marius Mathon, 30 (1894)

Gustave Olguéni, 24 (1894)

Guillaume Joseph Robillard, 24 (1894)

Léon Rouif, 27 (1894)

Alexandre Tennevin, 48 (1894)

Pierre Tournan, 49 (1894)

(via NPR)


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