Whilst researching the history of criminal photography for the book I am writing, my protagonist is a photographer that gets caught up in a series of brutal murders of Jewish activists in 1899 Vienna, I came upon the name, Alphonse Bertillon. A nineteenth century French forensic documentarian.
It is thanks to this man we have access to the recording and storing of the physical details of a criminal. Before his efforts, offenders were hard to keep track of. They could give false names and addresses, so finding those who recommitted a misdemeanour, was often impossible.
As a records clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris 1879, Bertillon became irked by the chaotic way they kept criminal data. He worked on a better system to store and classify offenders to make it easier for someone to find them if they re-offended. Using his interest in anthropometry, the scientific study of the proportions and measurements of the human body, he developed a recording system for detailing the size and shape of a criminal's distinguishing facial features.
These facial descriptions, classified the shapes, size and breadth of the nose, eyes, ears and other facial features, which he called, “Portrait Parle”. Although the coded lexicon he Invented to use alongside his method was too difficult to use and later abandoned.
However, his idea of “Portrait Parle" lead to his definitive method of identification and recording of a suspect/criminal in the shape of the Mug Shot.
Bertillon’s index card system along with the photograph of the lawbreaker, identified re-offenders better than any other system before his invention, and as we know, the Mug Shot, is still used today, alongside fingerprints, to keep detailed records of criminals ready for use if needed.
Next time, I’ll be discussing Bertillon’s influence on what we know today as Crime Scene Photography.
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Photos taken from Wikipedia and mental floss.com