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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

A Pioneer In Early Crime Forensics

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Murder and mayhem have always been intimate bedfellows. But until recent history—only about 100 years ago— mayhem was as much a part of crime forensics as it was of crime itself. Europe and the United States had very little organized systems for researching crimes, and criminals more often than not escaped justice. Often the wrong persons were accused and convicted. And, even though the majority of crimes were committed by “recidivists,” criminals who committed crimes repeatedly, record-keeping was so disorganized and disconnected, similarities between crimes went undetected.

Crime forensics was practically nonexistent until a young Parisian ne’er-do-well and family black sheep found his calling. Alphonse Bertillon had been expelled twice from school (once for setting fire to his desk, then for being too disruptive even for a school for disruptive children!), then conscripted into the French army, then drifted from job to job. Finally, he landed a low-level job as a records clerk in a police prefecture in Paris and he flourished. The year was 1879 and it was a case of the right person being at the right place at the right time in history, for he would revolutionize crime forensics first in France, and then the world. 

For all the mayhem Bertillon had himself caused up to that point, he was ironically a fastidious man with a penchant for order. Although he had never worked in a police department, he was appalled at the chaos of their record-keeping and he began to organize the files and devised systems for that organization. As he waded into the chaos, he began to think about recurring themes and common denominators of crime. At first, he was mocked and told his new-fangled systems would have to developed on his own time. He did. He also began to figure out how to categorize information to enable cross-referencing. Police departments had always suspected that most crime was committed by repeat offenders, but they were flummoxed as to how to make the connections. Bertillon was especially interested in connecting characteristics of crimes.


One way was to catalogue the features and characteristics of a suspect, as well as his or her crimes. He started first by devising the concept of standardized mug shots, which included frontal and side views, He developed a system called “anthropometry,” measuring the height and other bodily dimensions of a suspect and recording that information in their file. Police officers jeered at his efforts and when he began doing measurements of prison inmates at the infamous La Sante Prison, even the convicts mocked him.


He organized his records by different characteristics, like height, weight, eye color, hair color, nose type, and even handwriting. His new information system began to yield results. In 1884 alone, 241 recidivists were arrested in Paris for multiple crimes. In the first three years, 800 suspects were successfully identified, 3,500 in the first ten years. Police and civic leaders began to regard his ideas seriously. He broadened his ideas to include other areas of forensics.

By 1888, Bertillon was appointed the director of a specially created police department called the Bureau of Identification. He became widely admired with a worldwide reputation. The French government even decreed that all criminals and vagrants should carry ID cards with their Bertillon measurements and information.


One of Bertillon’s most revolutionary scientific improvements was standardizing crime scene photography. He stressed the concept of keeping a crime scene uncontaminated and preserved and photographing victims from a high vertical point to capture their position in situ. He also stressed photographing other angles of the crime scene, as well as photographing victims and their wounds from different perspectives.

He developed other scientific techniques that have become standard modern forensic procedure, such as using galvanoplastic to do footprint molds, ballistics, and the dynamometer, to determine the amount of force used in breaking and entering. (Bertillon did not develop fingerprinting, although his scientific approach inspired another forensic detective, Sir Francis Galton, to develop the system in the 1880s.) 

Bertillon also was fascinated by handwriting and believed it could provide valuable clues to crime and criminals. But his study of handwriting was in the infancy of such scientific study and his theories often flawed. Bertillon served as a witness and hand-writing expert in 1894 and five years later, in 1899 for the prosecution in one of France’s most infamous cases, The Dreyfus Affair. It was a political scandal involving a 35-year-old French officer of Jewish descent. He was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison for allegedly giving French military secrets to the German Embassy. His conviction was based in large part on Bertillon’s hand-writing analysis. Dreyfus spent five years in the horrific Devil’s Island in French Guiana before he was returned to France for an appeal trial after the real culprit was apprehended. Dreyfus won the appeal and Bertillon’s handwriting theories were debunked. 

Despite his handwriting debacle, Bertillon’s other contributions to forensic science were immense and he became widely admired and his methods spread around the world. By many accounts, Bertillon was extremely eccentric and pathologically focused. He may have even been on the autistic spectrum. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admired the French forensic pioneer, referencing Bertillon in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” writing that Sherlock Holmes’ clients referred to Holmes as the “second highest expert in Europe” after Bertillon. Sherlock Holmes also expressed his “enthusiastic admiration of the French savant” in “The Naval Treaty” when referring to the Bertillon system of measurements. 

Agatha Christie, too, referred to Bertillon in her writing several times, including in her 1925 mystery, “The Secret of Chimneys” and “the Murder on the Links.” 

For all Bertillon’s brilliance, he was also obstinate and proud and blinded by his own success. He refused to acknowledge other forensic techniques that had gained credence in the scientific world. He rejected fingerprinting, for example, claiming ”my measurements are surer than any fingerprint pattern.”

Of course, he was wrong and one famous American case proved it. A man named Will West had been arrested for a misdemeanor in Kansas in 1903. His Bertillon measurements were checked and he was found to already be serving at Leavenworth Penitentiary for murder two years previous! When he was taken to Leavenworth, Will West was introduced to his exact doppelganger, William West, who was serving his sentence as a convicted murderer. Both men had the exact Bertillon measurements—and even more fantastically—appeared identical in their mug shots and were serving their sentences in the same prison! But they had different fingerprints. Had Will West been judged solely by the Bertillon system, mistaken identity could have landed him in prison for life.

PHOTOS: (1) Alphonse Bertillon, a school dropout and former soldier, took a job as a records clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris in 1879, and it was there that he began to develop various forms of standardizing forensic investigation, especially in the area of photography. Here, he has produced mug shots of himself, one of his pioneering concepts of documenting suspects for police files. (2) Photographing victims from above and at various angles and close-ups was another innovation of Bertillon’s. He wanted to capture the body “in situ” as a detailed scene of a crime. (3) Bertillon also developed a system of “forensic anthropometry” he called “bertillonage,” that involved measuring dimensions of the head, face, long limb bones, and other body parts. These dimensions were recorded on file cards of arrestees and kept in their files along with mug shots, arrest records, and other information. (4) Bertillon at work photographing a victim from above with a camera set up on a very high tripod, one of his investigation concepts. (5, 6 & 7) Crime scenes photographed by Bertillon on location in Paris at the turn-of-the-century. Such photography could provide valuable clues about the positions of the victim and murderer, how a weapon was used, even time of day, and numerous other clues. #5 is of Madame Debeinche’s 1903 sumptuous boudoir shows every detail, including a chamber pot and the exact position of the victim’s body when it was found. Madame Debeinche was one of the very first victims to be photographed by Bertilllon. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain. (8) Alphonse Bertillon’s photography lab shows some of the equipment he used in his photography, including a very high tripod with a camera that could be positioned directly above the victim and another camera based on a massive crank tripod whose height could be easily and precisely adjusted. (9) Photography of victim’s bodies nude from different angles showed bruises, wounds, and distinctive birthmarks and features that helped identification. (10, 11 & 12) In a famous—and freakish—criminal coincidence, the Bertillon system proved to have its failings. Two men, one Will West, #10, and the other, William West, #12, were both prisoners at Leavenworth Penitentiary, both had the exact Bertillon measurements, and their mug shots appeared identical. But their fingerprints were different! One was doing time for a misdemeanor, the other for murder. Fingerprints saved Will West from a lifetime in prison.


Posted October 8, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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