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Bertillonage: the international circulation of practices and technologies of a system of forensic identification

Pierre Piazza
Cet article est une traduction de :
Bertillonnage : savoirs, technologies, pratiques et diffusion internationale de l’identification judiciaire

Notes de la rédaction

Translated by Patricia Bass

Texte intégral

1When the first version of the Bertillon Project and the identification of individuals 1880-1914 was made available on Criminocorpus in March 2010, a call for papers was announced in order to further the study of Bertillonage, the method of forensic identification based on mug shots and body index data founded by Alphonse Bertillon. This call for papers prioritized three themes: the international spread of Bertillonage; the ways that knowledge and technology of Bertillon’s method circulated in networks; and the specific practices of this form of forensic identification. The selected articles, published here, provide us with precious knowledge and analyses of these essential dimensions of Bertillonage, each in their own way. The first three articles address issues related to photography, a tool that Alphonse Bertillon applied to the police’s task of identification. The four following articles treat the reception, application, spread and adaptation of Bertillon’s identification techniques in the French colonies (French Guiana and Indochina) and abroad (South America and New York).

The International Spread of Forensic Identification

2First put into practice at the Parisian Police Prefecture, Bertillonage spread rapidly to the French colonies. In other countries, it was adopted as a so-called “progressive” tool by numerous actors, including diverse police institutions and specialists in the field of “criminal anthropology” (anthropologie criminelle).

3Both the words and deeds of these actors show that Bertillonage was accepted progressively, like, for example, it was by the police of Buenos Aires, who inaugurated their own Anthropometric department in 1889. Bertillon’s method also underwent criticism abroad and was greeted with suspicion by large portions of society who denounced it. For example, in New York, detectives were reluctant to replace their own traditional professional practices, while powerful congregations of colonized people in Indochina spoke out against Bertillonage as an oppressive disciplinary practice on multiple occasions. This resistance explains why Bertillonage was often adapted or modified on a technical level when it crossed cultural or national borders. Its international spread was, thus, a site of polemics, conflicts, and negotiations. It birthed strategies of circumvention and adaption, both by individuals who underwent the process of identification (like the repeat offenders who wanted to escape from the penal colonies in French Guiana) and by those who applied it (such as Juan Vucetich, the director of the Anthropometric Department of La Plata, who decided to only record information on the height and identifying marks on individuals). The international spread of Bertillonage responded to site-specific objectives which varied according to the context and period. For example, whereas some police forces prioritized the identification of repeat offenders, others were more focused on the modernization of the police or immigration control. All of these factors provide insight into the varied paths taken by the international expansion of Bertillonage and the unique role it played in population control (and population monitoring) in diverse regions of the world.

The transmission of Bertillonage: networks of knowledge and technology

4Bertillon played a major role in the rationalization and the fine-tuning of identification technologies, particularly when it comes to the adoption of photography for disciplinary purposes. Even though it could be easy to attribute the invention of “photographic identity” to Bertillon, it should be noted that the mug shot, within the larger system of Bertillon’s identification measures, did not constitute an irrefutable proof of identity in itself. In a similar vein, although Bertillon seems to be inspired by the works of previous photographers, his inventions do not necessarily directly draw from civilian photographers whose portraits could have been used for criminal identification. Finally, Bertillon’s major contribution to photographic identification for forensic purposes may be one of the least known yet most essential aspects of his work at the Parisian Police Prefecture: the way in which he participated in the definition, codification and application of a “scientific” system of mapping crime scenes.

5In addition to the cutting-edge personal identification technologies that Bertillon fine-tuned, other technologies emerged at the end of the 19th century that are indispensable for the study of Bertillonage abroad. For example, new methods of classifying fingerprints were promoted across the globe thanks to a complex network of scholars, inventors, and experts with diverse backgrounds: Joseph A. Faurot in the United States, Juan Vucetich in South America, Victor Joseph Pottecher in Indochina, etc. This dynamic led to the formation of a true scientific field of identification specialists driven by different types of debates, competitions, oppositions, and exchanges of knowledge and practices. Among other instances of exchange, Faurot spent time in London studying the Scotland Yard’s use of fingerprints and Pottecher was inspired by the classification of fingerprints in Bengal. The emerging scientific field of forensic identification was the site of numerous projects and experiments that profoundly modified state practices of identification as well as the communication and exchange of personal data between countries. For example, a system of exchanges was formed between South American police forces starting in the beginning of the 20th century.

Practices of Bertillonage

6Bertillonnage was applied across the globe by a multitude of organizations including, but not limited to “Anthropometric labs”, “Anthropometric Identification Departments”, “Offices of Criminal Identification” and “Offices of Forensic Identification”. These were generally attached to police, judicial, or immigration institutions. The cases that are analyzed here occasionally reveal instances of organizational neglect, which, in institutions like the penitentiary system of French Guiana, impede their proper functioning. Nevertheless, most of them seem to recognize the necessity of referring to Bertillon’s concepts in order to perform identification tasks efficiently. As for Bertillon, he strived to ensure that his instructions were accurately followed and enforced. For example, he personally verified the material that would be used in the central identification department of Saigon and offered to translate, free of charge, his book Instructions Signalétiques for Vucetich in order to train Argentinian police in the new practices that he had developed.

7The transmission of specialized knowledge of identification practices thus became a crucial issue that was addressed in different ways. For example, heads of forensic identification departments organized training courses for civil servants and ad hoc structures, like the “School of Detectives” in New York. Regulated trainings were indispensable for the rigorous, consistent and repetitive application of identification practices, which followed methodological procedures and addressed diverse and wide-spread populations. Analyses of the daily activities of multiple departments which had “impressive results” show the necessity of such trainings. Trainings allowed state logics of control to penetrate into the heart of society, pushed individuals to interiorize new identity codes which treated the body as a target, and facilitated the emergence of new representations of police institutions.

8In one of the first articles of our dossier, Stéphanie Sotteau Soualle questions the influence of the photographic practices of Eugène Appert (1831-1890) on Bertillon’s famous mug shots at the Parisian Police Prefecture in the 1880s. Certainly, by breaking with the traditional photographic studio portrait, many of Appert’s photographs seem similar to those that Bertillon later produced. Nevertheless, Appert’s were taken during the end of the Second Empire in order to pay homage to certain members of the political class in the press “without any legal afterthought”. Afterwards, with the permission of the judicial system, Appert also photographed imprisoned members of the Internationale, but Soualle explains that this practice responded above all to certain commercial and photo-journalistic imperatives. Although the portraits of communards that Appert took in 1871 include certain characteristics, such as their normalized format and neutral background, that could have directly served the police’s goals of identification, control, and surveillance, this photographer was not aware of those potential uses of his work in advance, and the format of his photographs is thus more of a result of special circumstances that conditioned in situ their production.

9Deepening the reflections on police photography from the previous article, Stéphanie Solinas explains that one of Bertillon’s main contributions was to formulate the objective of showing the unique identity of each individual via the careful recording of their body indexes. This subjugation of individuals could not been done with mug shots alone, and Bertillon needed to create a corpus of rules and codified methods in order to guide the interpretation of images, giving them the appearance of objectivity. These constraints led him to quickly realize the limits of photography as a medium of identification. However, his inventions showed how photography could individualize and identify individuals as singularities, and Bertillon thus played a decisive role in the rise of photography as a primary means of modern power in contemporary societies.

10Finally, Teresa Castro’s article is dedicated to an oft-ignored part of Bertillon’s forensic innovations that contributed to a radical transformation of the way that photographs were used by forces of order: the “metric photography” of crime scenes. In order to rationally solve murders and efficiently apprehend their perpetrators, Bertillon aimed to rigorously analyze all available clues (objects, bodies, etc), understand the precise spatial aspects of the criminal event, and meticulously depict the actions that had been carried out by the parties involved. This topographic goal was realized via the invention and application of sophisticated photographic equipment that allowed the investigator to obtain exact, measurable, quantifiable and cartographic information on the scene of the crime. Castro explains in detail how Bertillon’s scientific approach aims to create visible forms of knowledge and to give the police tangible access to the “real”.

11Jean-Lucien Sanchez reminds us that in France, the deportation law of May 27th 1885 resulted in numerous repeat offenders being sent to French Guiana. Because of the severity of this new sentence, a number of these repeat offenders in mainland France attempted to escape by developing strategies of fake identity, which were largely foiled by the anthropometric department of the Parisian Police Prefecture, which held large amounts of key personal data for forensic identification. In French Guiana, on the other hand, the anthropometric labs in the primary prisons or labor camps (Saint-Jean du Maroni and Saint-Laurent du Maroni) experienced problems in precisely identifying deported individuals, a failure that can be seen in the cases of those who managed to escape and take refuge in British Guiana. Sanchez examines the main reasons for this phenomenon, including the organizational shortcomings of the prison system and the role played by English judges who were often hostile to the French colonial prison regime.

12In another article addressing the use of Bertillon’s method abroad, Ilsen About shows how in Indochina the application of Bertillonage brought up entirely different issues. In 1897, anthropometric identification labs in Saigon were mainly focused on the security of the colony and the regulation of Chinese immigration. They provoked strong resistance from the colonized population (particularly among congregations), which led to the incessant transformation of their practices and, eventually, the development of totally new systems of identification. Despite the changing nature of forensic identification in Saigon, the police responsible for such measures still generalized their practices, which affected large categories of the population. Furthermore, their diverse instruments of identification directly informed the concrete development of principles of categorization, on which the hierarchical regime of colonial society was based.

13In South America, massive European immigration, rapid city growth and demographic change made population control and police methods of identification pressing issues and explains the early interest of South American police forces in Bertillon’s anthropometric method. Diego Galeano and Mercedes Ferrari’s research provides a detailed study of this phenomenon, showing how, despite similarities in context, the application of Bertillon’s techniques in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil did not follow the same institutional paths or advance at the same rhythm. Our authors propose that these differences arose from the different role played by national elites in the process of state modernization, and from key actors in the police force who may have had personal or strategic interest in applying Bertillon’s methods to the letter. In this context, conflicts developed between the adoption of Bertillon’s method and the fingerprint-based identification that Juan Vucetich actively promoted, and it is these types of oppositions that are studied in order to understand the unique configurations of forensic identification used in this area of the world.

14The New York police’s acceptance and propagation of Bertillonage was also subject to site-specific modifications which, as Yann Philippe describes, were linked to conflicts and power issues inherent in the institutional organization of the New York police force, such as the divide between civil leaders and professional policemen. Shortly thereafter, when the New York police adopted fingerprint identification, the conflicts over method were not nearly as exacerbated. Despite these initial controversies, Philippe argues that Bertillon played a central part in the advent of the figure of the “expert” which was constructed both by the press and by the police themselves. The new role of “expert” was a heroic figure who contributed to a radical transformation of the image of the New York police: the idea of the policeman was transformed from that of an ordinary man, to that of an individual with nearly-superhuman powers, granted to him by merit of his superior scientific knowledge.

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Pierre Piazza, « Bertillonage: the international circulation of practices and technologies of a system of forensic identification », Criminocorpus [En ligne], Bertillon, bertillonnage et polices d'identification, Présentation du dossier, mis en ligne le 18 avril 2011, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Pierre Piazza

Pierre Piazza est maître de conférences en Science politique à l’Université de Cergy-Pontoise, membre du CESDIP et du LEJEP. Ses travaux de nature socio-historique portent principalement sur les dispositifs étatiques d’identification des individus et leurs enjeux. Il a publié de nombreux ouvrages et articles sur le bertillonnage, la dactyloscopie, l’encartement et la biométrie.

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