Paris Police 1900 – The story behind the character Bertillon – the father of French forensic science

Watching Paris Police 1900, I was fascinated to see one of the characters was Bertillon. He was a real figure. Alphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who created anthropometry, an identification system based on physical measurements. Anthropometry was the first scientific system used by police to identify criminals. I first came across him when I wrote a monograph on the history of the mugshot. Bertillon was the inventor of the mugshot, as we now know it. He was keen to apply science to policing and that he knew that the only way, at the time, to identify a criminal was their name, personal identification or they had been preserved in the newly developed art of photography. The catalyst for my taking on this research was the release of poignant if much more relaxed pictures of ‘criminals’ taken in Dorchester in the early Victorian period and that predate the Bertillon system. Here are three examples.

The Juvenile Offender: Luther Gosney 10 years old. In 1876 he was committed to Dorset County Gaol charged with stealing two tin horns valued at 8d.  It was his first offence and he was sentenced him to twenty one days in gaol followed by five years in Reformatory.
George Scammell tried 4 July 1883 found guilty of obtaining money by false pretences.  Aged 56 years – sentenced to 12 months hard labour and two years police supervision.
Juvenile Offender: Priscilla Penfold. 12 years old.  She was charged with stealing a cloak valued at 25s.  She was sentenced to one month in gaol and five years in Reformatory for her first offence. 

I was struck by the difference between that an mugshots I have used to illustrate articles as journalist like Winston Silcott and Myra Hindley’s.

Bertillon systematised the photograph as a means of identification, the front and side phot and fitted it into his card record system. In my paper I argue that the mugshot’s simplicity of framing and purpose is deceptive. The mugshot genre has come to carry, sometimes on a case by case basis, an extraordinary array of meaning: spectacle, punitive, shaming, power, desire, cultural, surveillance, psychoanalytical, philosophical, psychoanalytic, criminological, colonialism, historic, transgression, deviance and art.

The mugshot is one of the simplest forms of the photograph: a rectangle, a head and shoulders image of a human being. It is planned, posed but deliberately decontextualized. The photographer is required by the judicial authorities to capture the best detailed image of the suspect that is allowed in the circumstances. Its purpose is functional and bureaucratic primarily for future registration, identification and classification. The modalities of the mugshot are deliberately limited.

I also discussed whether the systematic approach made it easier to the extend the immediate recognistion of the mugshot as casting the individual as a criminal but that was used by the Nazis to criminalise jewish people, as with the infamous Auschwitz photos. If you would like to see the original article it will be through the journal Social Semiotics (only through academic systems) or through the Brunel University open access system. The grisly Paris Police 1900 series can be seen on BBC iPlayer.

Paul Lashmar

From Kartika Sukarno, the daughter of the President that the British government wanted toppled. Follows our recent expose in The Observer of how the Foreign Office secretly encouraged those engaged in a mass murder campaign.

Britain owes an apology to my father and millions of other Indonesians