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March 6, 2020

Alphonse Bertillon and the Ears Identification of Persons (1893)

French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914) was a key actor in the history of crime knowledge at the turn of the century. Influenced by criminal anthropology, his first contribution was the design and implementation of novel police identification methods at the Paris Prefecture de Police. From the 1880s onward, he also promoted a specific brand of policing knowledge, and fostered its dissemination on a large scale, in France as well as abroad.

In the late 19th century, Bertillon took thousands and thousands of pictures of ears hoping to show that people could be identified by their unique ear shape, much like fingerprints are used today. However, all he proved was that ears are really really weird looking if you stare at them for too long.

Wilhelm Figueroa, director of the New York City Police Department’s photo unit, said there are three parts of a mug shot the NYPD takes after arresting someone: the front view and both side views. “No one looks like a criminal per se. There’s nothing about a person’s face that says, ‘This person’s a criminal.’ We’re all capable of great good. We’re all capable of being bad people.”

“Take 10 different people, take pictures of their ears and you’ll be to identify each and every one of them because we all have different facets to our ears. Some of us have longer earlobes, some shorter, some thicker, some thinner,” he added.

It’s an observation that Bertillon championed back in the late 1800s. He went on to create a system for identification that the Paris Police Prefecture adopted in 1882, giving rise to the modern mug shot. 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.

“Men can grow facial hair to cover their chin, but you can’t change the shape of your nose except through surgery. And you can’t change the contours of your ear,” explained Mia Fineman, one of the curators for the photo exhibition Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, which features some of Bertillon's work.

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 work became so famous that in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, a client offends Sherlock Holmes by calling him “the second highest expert in Europe” — after Bertillon.


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