Episode 4: Bertillon

Hello and welcome to Paname, the podcast that gets out its tape measure and sizes up Paris’ past.

Today come with me as we discover the how one of the greatest art thefts of history and the solving or rather lack of solving of it would force the man who even Sherlock Holmes admired to re-think his methods.

I’ve come today to the Police museum in the 5th arrondsiment. Within you can see all sorts of documents about serial killers, information about famous crimes and even a guillotine. But you are also able to see the incredible equipment used by Allophones Bertillon which revolutionised criminal investigation in France and the world.  Bertillon came from a gifted and forward thinking family, his mother started a school in 1862 for the Instruction of young women and his Father, Dr Bertillon pioneered through the anthropology society to do away with the priesthood, militarism, the cult of authority and the subjugation of women! Sadly Alphonse did not do so well, kicked out of school at 6, apparently he was beastly to his tutor and was plagued by tics and migraines throughout his life. He has been describe as sarcastic, unpleasant incredibly unmusical.  Seemingly unemployable, his father was able to wrangle him a job with the police and although it did not seem likely he would follow in his parents great footsteps to achieve much he would prove them all wrong. Through is work he transformed the way criminals were documented and caught not only in France, but throughout the world and his legacy lives on to this very day.

In 1832 the practice of branding criminals was outlawed. Because of this it became near impossible to tell if a criminal had every been arrested before.  Forging documents was relatively easy, and criminals often gave false namesand so it came down tomemory game. A police officer would need to remember and recognise someone to see if they had a prior record. Photography was a relatively new art, and although used it was not standardised. Bertillon saw the need for a system that was coherent and clear and so was born the mug shot the same that we use today. A clear photo, well lit of the person, one from the front one from the side, which he was able then to attach to their file. But still Bertillon realised people can change the way they look, grow a moustache, cut their hair so he came up with an ingenious system to foil would be criminals trying to hide their identity.

With his knowledge of statistics he went about creating a system for classifying the criminals of 19th France. Inspired by the work of Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, often called the father of modern statistics, who claimed that no two human beings in the world have the exact same physical dimensions. So Bertillon selected body parts to measure, those that he thought would best stand the test of time and not change with age creating what he called ‘anthropometry, but was given the eponym ‘Bertillonnage’

He would measure: The body: height, width of outstretched arm & sitting heightHead: length, breadth, and the width from cheek bone to cheek bone. Also the right ear (although ears are very distinctive – and an excellent way of identifying people) Limbs: length of left foot, left middle finger and left little finger, and left arm from elbow to tip of middle finger

Bertillon preferred the left reasoning that since most people were right handed these measurements would change the least from use. However despite this rather long list and, what must have been a very time consuming amount of measuring Bertillon calculated that there was a about a 300 million to 1 chance that two people might share all 11 of the same statistics. So, stickler that he was, he added 3 more points that needed to be taken into consideration: hair colour, eye colour and pigment of the skin.

Years of hard, meticulous work paid off. In 1883 the new chief of police, gave Bertillon 3 months to prove his system worked or bin it for ever. Up until now they had been very suspicious and did not think it was really possible to use effectively in the police. It was looking bleak but, like all good stories, he got his break in the form of arch criminal M Dupont/or M Martin as he was calling himself. He had previously been in custardy for the dastardly deed of stealing empty bottles. Bertillon was able to prove that Dupont and Martin were one and the same. Things took off from there and he was soon identifying 3 recidivists a week. By 1884 he had identified 241, and 424 by the next year. His method became widespread and his reputation increased, especially when he was able to solve high profile cases. He won the legion of honour for his role in the capture of Ravachol – a notorious anarchist bomber managing to identify him and stop further bomb attacks for  which everyone was very grateful. This was a time where the detective and forensic science was beginning to take off and Bertillon’s system and approach was considered very modern and exciting.

He introduced his scientific method to other areas of crime – recording the crime scene with photography, taking plaster casts of footprints or analysing bodies for traces that might have been left behind like insects or soil that might yield valuable clues.

He even reaching the dizzying heights of being compared in brilliance by sir Conan Doyle to fictitious super sleuth Sherlock holms in the hound of the Baskervilles, lets hear a little quote:

“...Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—“

“Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?” Asked Holmes.

“To the man of precise, scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.”

“Then had you not better consult him?”

“I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone. I trust, sir, that I have not inadvertently—“

“Just a little,” said Holmes.”

Very high praise indeed.

But alas all good things come to an end so even though by the mid 1890s French police had over 5 million measurements on file the times they were a-changing. Bertiollon’s method relied on people being as meticulous and accurate with the measurements as he was and, sadly criminals were not in the habit of leaving behind their measurements at the scene of the crime.  Scottish physician Henry Faulds had been studying the marks left by fingerprints and suggested that these marks did not change through a person’s life.  People started taking notice including Br anthropologist Sir Francis Galton who published books and articles about the subject. William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, also asked locals to stamp their business contracts and legal documents with their fingerprints, not to catch criminals but for administrative purposes because he realises that these were unique to each individual.  

Bertillonnage however was firmly established and so when young Argentinian upstart Jaun Vucetich suggested this new fangled method he was shot down; ‘stick with Bertillonnage’ he was told non of this new fingerprint nonsenses. A grizzly murder and a bloody fingerprint left at the scene were enough to convince the Argentines and they became the first country to use fingerprints rather than anthropometry to identify criminals.

In the UK identical twins Albert Ebenezer fox and Ebenezer Albert fox were also able to outfox the system, providing alibis for each other or pretending to be the other. Identical in every way, only their fingerprints could set them apart and Bertillonnage was not in anyway useful to identify them. In the USA the unlikely story of Will West would cause the Americans to favour fingerprinting. In 1903 a prisoner, Will West was brought to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. The clerk recognised him but Mr West protested that he had never been there before. His file was found – a prisoner with his name, his exact measurements and who looked exactly like him was currently serving time.

Although Bertillon used fingerprinting he could not bear to part with the system that had brought him fame and that he had pioneered saying ‘my measurements are surer that any fingerprint’ so by 1910 France was the only country in Europe not using fingerprinting as its main identification system.

On August 21st , 1911, here were I am standing in the coure carré  of the Louvre museum the discovery was made of the theft of the Mona Lisa.  It seems that the thief had hidden himself away overnight and stolen the painting simply by walking out with it under his coat whilst disguised as a maintenance worker. Most people on visiting the louver have the same response to the Mona Lisa ‘she’s much smaller than I thought she would be’ and at 30 by 21 inches not that much bigger than an A2 piece of paper she is indeed not that big.  But this was just as well for the thief because Leonardo painted his masterpiece onto wood not canvass and so would be impossible for him to roll up and steal had she been much bigger. Upon discovery Paris, and the popular press went wild. The museum was humiliated to have lost such a valuable piece and people came in droves to stare at the space where she had once enigmatically smiled.  In fact the theft did a lot to make her, already famous amongst art lovers one of the most famous pieces in the museum and known to all Parisians.

There was much speculation as to who and why she had been taken. Was it for ransom? Was it for a rich private buyer? And many a scam artist tried to claim they had her and were willing to sell her for the right price. All of this was to no avail. Suspicious types such as a young Pablo Picasso and Apollinaire were arrested and questioned but it seemed impossible to find a lead. Thankfully the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia contacted an art dealer in Italy she may never have been found. Peruggia would later claim that while working at the Louvre he had fallen in love with the Painting and was outraged that so many beautiful works of Italian art had been ‘stolen’ and put on display at the Louvre. The Mona Lisa, although indeed painted by Leonardo di Vinci was in fact not stolen as De vinci lived in France at the end of his life and after his death his painting was given to Francois 1st the king at the time. Now whether Peruggia was moved by patriotic zeal to see these works restored to their rightful place, as he insisted, and not by the thought of money is debatable. Nonetheless, he became famous in Italy and infamous in France. Especially when it was discovered that he did indeed have a criminal record, that they had his fingerprints on file and had they been organised in a way to catalogue criminals using fingerprints and not Bertiollonnage they may have discovered the Mona Lisa a lot less. This was the last nail in the coffin for Bertiollonnage.

Bertillon died in 1914 you can see his grave in Pere Lachaise, where he was buried, minus his brain which was donated to science. And you can see his rather medical looking tools and huge camera at the police museum. And as for his system? Well the mug shot lives on and arguable so does his measuring of people. In their book ‘Crimes of Paris’ Dortothy and Thomas Hoobler astutely point out that biometrics and facial recognition technology are essentially a more sophisticated version of Bertillonnage, and potential even more useful even than fingerprints.

Once again thank you so much for listening, I do hope you enjoyed this episode. As ever I’m open to questions and comments and do check out my website at Panamepodcast.com for more information pictures and links. Be sure not to miss any episodes by subscribing on Itunes or whatever podcatcher you use. Paname is written and produced by myself with music from the Owl find links to her work in the show notes. That’s all for now take care by be.