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Émile Forquet, the judge who received Joseph Vacher’s confession, had done a bit of detecting himself to bring the serial killer to justice. Forquet liked to collect and review the files of unsolved cases. He then arranged them according to the categories of crimes and types of injuries, along with reports of people seen in the vicinity. Noticing a pattern, he realized that witnesses’ reports seemed to point to a single person. Forquet circulated copies of a card that used a system of identification known as bertillonage to describe the ears, nose, scars, and eyes of this man. The responses he received helped him to identify Vacher, and when the man was finally in front of him, Forquet pressed him to confess.

Alphonse Bertillon’s method of identification, which he had named anthropometry, or “man measurement,” was by 1900 in general use by police departments all over Europe and the United States. So great was Bertillon’s fame that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even mentioned him as a rival to Sherlock Holmes. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, a prospective client arrived to consult Holmes. As his friend Watson recalled the scene, the client said:

“I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognizing, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe —”

“Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honor to be the first?” asked Holmes, with some asperity.

“To the man of precisely 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. 1


Bertillon came from a family renowned for intellectual achievement. His maternal grandfather, Achille Guillard, was a doctor and statistician who coined the term demography in 1855 and had written one of the first books on the subject. In the early years of the Second Empire, a time of such political repression that it was illegal for citizens to assemble in groups larger than three, Guillard ran afoul of the authorities and was tossed into prison. There he shared a cell with a young doctor named Louis-Adolphe Bertillon, who had been arrested for tending the wounded on both sides of the street fighting. They were not in jail long, and on their release, Guillard introduced Dr. Bertillon to his daughter, Zoe. The two were soon married. Zoe Bertillon was a brilliant woman who argued the merits of the philosophical systems of Comte and Spinoza with Jules Michelet, a family friend and France’s foremost historian of the time. Lean and graceful, taller than her husband, she kept her home in simple republican good taste. In 1862, Zoe and a friend started a school called the Free Society for the Professional Instruction of Young Women, which emphasized intellectual subjects.

Her husband, Louis-Adolphe, was one of the first members of the Anthropology Society of Paris, founded by his brilliant friend the surgeon Paul Broca. Broca wished to create “a scientific society where one would have the right to draw all the philosophical consequences from one’s observations.” 2 When Louis-Adolphe was asked to join, he expressed concern that he was not knowledgeable in this field. “I wouldn’t be able to render it any service,” he said, “as I don’t know a word of anthropology.” Broca was unfazed. “Neither do I,” he responded. “All the more reason to learn it or, rather, to create it, because in truth, it doesn’t exist!” 3

Though the founders of the society had little knowledge of their subject, they would become the pioneers of the field in France. They saw anthropology as a way to express their progressive ideas about humanity and identify “all that is still present of the savage and barbaric in our modern civilizations.” 4 Among the things they wanted to do away with were the priesthood, militarism, the cult of authority, and the subjugation of women.

Louis-Adolphe was also a founder of the Society for Mutual Autopsy, whose members agreed to donate and dissect one another’s brains after death to promote the advancement of science. Fifteen years earlier, in 1861, Paul Broca had demonstrated through a postmortem that the left frontal lobe of the brain controlled speech. When it was damaged, speech was impaired in a symptom called “Broca’s aphasia.” 5 Broca further developed several instruments to measure and classify skulls, 6 the highest classification being “brachycephalic.” Conan Doyle used Broca’s terminology in his writing. Like Holmes, the archvillain Professor Moriarty is brachycephalic, and at their first meeting, he greets Holmes with the comment: “You have less frontal development than I should have expected.” 7 (Despite Broca’s proclaimed progressivism, women and people from non-European cultures were believed to have smaller and therefore inferior brains.)

It was into this intellectual community that Alphonse Bertillon was born on April 24, 1853. Not surprisingly, anthropometric techniques and measurements were part of Alphonse’s life almost from birth. When Alphonse was very young, his father had a biologist friend feel the heads of his two sons. The doctor proclaimed that both had “methodical and precise” minds and would be capable of scholarly work. When Alphonse was three, he and his brother imitated their elders by measuring with ribbons everything that they could get their hands on.

Both the Guillard and Bertillon families were experts in the new study of statistics, particularly as it related to human affairs. Louis-Adolphe was pleased when his elder son, Jacques, followed the family tradition and became a renowned statistician himself. Alphonse too seemed likely to head in that direction. He was particularly fond of quoting a sentence from his father’s works about the purpose of science being to find order within what seems to be chaos.

Unfortunately, Alphonse found that schools were not to his liking. At six, he was kicked out of his first one for lack of discipline. His home tutor also found Alphonse a problem, for the boy hid in a cupboard at lesson time, took the teacher’s glasses, and teased him so dreadfully that the tutor quit. Sent to the Rossat Institute in Charleville, a school for problem children, Alphonse was expelled from there as well, when he was eleven. In his teens he attended the lycée at Versailles and there he accidentally set fire to his desk while using a spirit lamp to make hot chocolate. When the teacher investigated the source of the smoke, Alphonse clamped down the lid of the desk, refusing to let the teacher open it, and for good measure hit him over the head with a Greek dictionary. He was sent home once more.

After France suffered its ignominious defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, eighteen-year-old Alphonse was called up for his required army service, possibly to the relief of his long-suffering father. The young man stood five feet ten inches tall — well above the average for his day — and his physical presence won him the respect of his fellow conscripts and the officers. He attained the rank of corporal, probably the first distinction he had ever achieved in life. Even so, a military career was not for him; he suffered from many tics and ailments, including migraine headaches and nosebleeds. He was so unmusical that the only way he could distinguish bugle signals for reveille and roll call was to count the notes. After his discharge he contracted typhoid fever. Perhaps these physical hardships were a reason for his lifelong sour disposition, which manifested itself in sarcasm and unsociability as well as habitual suspicion of others’ motives.

Two years later, however, after studying on his own, he passed the national examination, the baccalauréat, in science and literature. Clearly, Bertillon had a fine mind, but he wanted no more of formal schooling. Nonetheless, he failed to demonstrate the qualities required to hold a job — first as a bank clerk and then as a French teacher in an English school. He was sarcastic with co-workers and had a bad temper; it appears that in order to maintain control of his emotions, he needed to keep everything slow and steady. Around 1879, however, he met an upper-class Swedish woman and fell madly in love. For unknown reasons, marriage was impossible, but they exchanged letters and pictures. It appears to have been an obsession that lasted a lifetime. Bertillon never revealed her name to family or friends, but he kept her photograph and letters until his death. The young man dedicated himself to her memory and used it as a goad to find some kind of success in the world. He began that search by asking his father for help in finding a job.


There seemed no chance that Alphonse could follow an academic career like his father and brother. But his father had done statistical work for the Municipality of Paris and used his influence to obtain for his errant son a position as a junior clerk in the Prefecture of Police. Alphonse began work in March 1879, just short of his twenty-sixth birthday, in the corner of a storage cellar that was steaming hot in the summer and so cold in the winter that his gloved fingers could barely hold a quill pen. Making a pittance, Bertillon plunged into the tiresome task of copying the identification forms that were required to be filled out for each prisoner.

Ever since the branding of convicted criminals with a hot iron had been outlawed in 1832, there had been no sure way of knowing whether a person accused of a crime had been in police custody before. 8 A clever person could even get a new birth certificate if he knew the date and place of birth of someone whose identity he wanted to steal. In Bertillon’s time, it was still up to the police to determine on sight if they had seen a prisoner before. Officers of the law were, in fact, offered a reward of five francs for each individual they could identify (a practice that, according to one authority, resulted in police offering to share the five francs with prisoners who would admit to having been arrested before — whether they had been or not). And, of course, identifications produced merely by someone’s memory were always subject to challenge.

Vidocq had prided himself on his prodigious memory for faces and names to catch criminals by whatever name they were going under. He had started the first documentary records with descriptions of criminals in words and drawings. After his retirement, the records continued to expand. In theory these forms should have proved useful by being compared to other records to find a match. But because newly arrested suspects frequently gave false names, and since the descriptions given by arresting officers were hopelessly vague (“tall, dark-haired, average build”), the forms were in practice totally useless. In the 1860s, police had started using photographs of known criminals. But these were often taken from family or friends of the suspect and could be in any pose. Moreover, they had to be searched through one by one. This was the big problem with the identification records: the larger the collection grew, the more unwieldy it became.

In 1871, the Communards, as one of their last acts, had destroyed many of the police records and pictures. The Paris police subsequently had to rebuild their photographic records from scratch. By the end of the decade, the prefecture had about sixty thousand images in its possession. The quality of these varied with the skill of the photographer, and there was no way of classifying records by the image on them, so only by chance — and then without certainty — would two cards made at different times be matched with each other.

Thus Bertillon soon realized that, in addition to the strain of ten daily hours of rote copying, every minute of his time was wasted on an activity that was of no use whatsoever. The schoolboy who refused to spend time on subjects that he didn’t like now reasserted himself. Except for his father’s disapproving gaze (and the fact that it was at last necessary for the son to do something to earn a living), Bertillon might simply have quit. Instead, he drew on his knowledge of statistics, the field in which his grandfather, father, and brother excelled.

About 1840, a Belgian named Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, who is often called the father of modern statistics, stated that no two human beings in the world have exactly the same physical dimensions. Other statisticians accepted this as a given, and Bertillon began to develop a series of measurements of the human body that could be used for identification purposes. He got permission from the head of the local jail to measure the prisoners, and by August 1879, he believed that creating such a system was possible. He sent a report to the prefect of police, Louis Andrieux, who did not reply. When Bertillon was advanced to assistant clerk in October of that year, he sent a second letter to the prefect. He explained that the system he proposed was based on the Quetelet study of French crime statistics in A Treatise on Man, which included measurements of the human physique.

Andrieux had little patience for this young upstart who was trying to bring about an upheaval in the department’s methods — even though he knew from personal experience that much of the information in the records was incorrect: when appointed prefect, Andrieux had taken a look at his own dossier and found it riddled with false information and groundless accusations, the kind of material the police typically gleaned from informants and spies.

Nevertheless, Andrieux sent Bertillon’s proposal to the chief of the Sûreté, Gustave Macé, who likewise was unimpressed. Macé had considerable experience with police work and had by now attained fame by solving the Voirbo case. But he was a man who had worked his way up from street cop to the head of the Sûreté and along the way had become convinced that gut feelings and practical skills were superior to scientific methods. The detective’s “nose” and his memory (à la Vidocq) were the most important tools to him. It did not help that Bertillon, by even the most sympathetic accounts, was an unprepossessing person. Regarded by some as a pompous pedant, he tended to lecture others, even his superiors, in a manner that aroused resentment. This was certainly true in the case of Andrieux, who, after getting a negative reaction from Macé, not only rejected Bertillon’s proposal but wrote a letter to the young man’s father, suggesting that Alphonse might be mentally disturbed and that if he continued to make bizarre suggestions, his job would be at risk.

No doubt Andrieux was well aware that Dr. Bertillon had pulled strings to obtain the police clerk position for his ne’er-do-well son, and there may have been a certain amount of resentment behind the letter. Sadly, Louis-Adolphe showed Andrieux’s missive to his son, who responded with his only defense — the “evidence” of his derangement, the report he had prepared for Andrieux.

To Dr. Bertillon’s credit, he read the document with an open mind and found it impressive; he even admitted that his son might well be onto something. But Louis-Adolphe also knew that politics played a greater role in changing the way governmental agencies worked than did brilliant ideas. It would be better, he told his son, to wait. The tenures of police prefects tended to be short; Andrieux would one day retire or move to another government post. Alphonse should prepare for that day by developing his identification system more thoroughly — perfecting it.

So Bertillon did so, selecting body parts to measure that he felt were least likely to change as a person aged. In the final version of what he called anthropometry, but became better known as bertillonage, eleven measurements are used. These fall into three categories:

1. Body: height, width of outstretched arms, and sitting height.

2. Head: length of head, breadth of head, bizygomatical diameter, and length of the right ear.

3. Limbs: length of left foot, length of left middle finger and left little finger, and length of the left arm from the elbow to the tip of the outstretched middle finger. Bertillon favored making measurements on the left side because that side was least likely to be affected by work.

Bertillon calculated that the chances against all eleven points being found in any two individuals was 268,435,456 to 1. For him, that was not quite certain enough, and so he added three more points — descriptive, instead of those, like the first eleven, that could be obtained by scientific instruments. These were the color of the eyes, the hair, and the pigmentation of the skin.

Around this time, Bertillon met an attractive woman who asked for his help crossing the street. There comes a moment in most men’s lives when they manage, if only momentarily, to shed their natural awkwardness and social ineptitude. This was Bertillon’s. He commented on the woman’s accent and learned that she had been born in Austria. She said she had only recently arrived in Paris and was earning a living by giving German lessons. Bertillon replied that he had long wanted to learn German. And so…

The young woman’s name was Amélie Notar. During the course of his German lessons, Alphonse noticed that her handwriting was unusually small and neat. Bertillon’s own reflected his physical awkwardness, making his task of filling out cards at the department even more onerous. When Amélie learned of Bertillon’s hope to one day introduce his system to the police files, she offered her assistance. Her clearly written cards made possible the next step of bertillonage — finding a way to classify the descriptive cards so that they could be easily referenced. Bertillon’s niece, who wrote a biography of him, commented on their collaboration: “For him the thought; for her the action.” 9

Now he was able to solve the problem of classification. Random filing of the cards would, of course, produce no benefits once the number of cards grew, so Bertillon had to come up with a cascading system of options. He began with the length of the head. The resulting measurements (like those of all eleven physical dimensions in Bertillon’s method) were divided into three groups: small, medium, and large. The process was then repeated with the breadth of the head, producing nine groups (three squared) — and so on through seven of the eleven measurements. The cards were further divided by seven gradations of eye color, defined by Bertillon. These may seem like a lot, but in practice it was actually a fairly rapid process, once a subject’s measurements were taken, to find the file in which his card would be found, presuming that he had been measured once before. “A criminal could be measured, looked up and identified in a matter of minutes,” according to one modern authority. 10

Increasingly impatient, Bertillon occupied his spare time taking prisoners’ measurements and recording them, preparing for the day when he would be allowed to show what he could do for the police. He began to enhance the value of the cards he was still making (using the tried-and-true descriptive method) by affixing to them photographs of the prisoners. This had been done on an irregular basis before, but Bertillon saw the need to standardize the poses; he originated the front- and side-view mug shots, which were eventually adopted by police photographers everywhere. Dissatisfied with the shoddy work of others, he learned to take photographs himself, carefully lighting the subjects so that a clear and precise image could be made.

Finally, a new prefect of police took Andrieux’s place, and Bertillon’s father once more used his connections to introduce his son’s plan. The prefect, a man named Jean Camecasse, listened to Alphonse’s explanation. Unfortunately, Bertillon could not refrain from explaining the relationship between demography and etymological classifications and its importance in identifying recidivists. In his customary fashion, the discourse grew long and complex.

Camecasse shrugged. The young man’s father had connections, so it would be best to humor him. “We must be practical here,” Camecasse reminded Alphonse. “We are not scientists, who can afford the luxury of experimenting without result.” 11 Bertillon must have bitten his tongue. Still, Camecasse gave Bertillon three months to prove that his system could in fact identify a prisoner who had previously been arrested. Camecasse did not want to appear unreasonable; he assigned two clerks to assist Bertillon in taking the measurements and recording them on the new cards. (Apparently, he also looked the other way when Bertillon added an irregular volunteer to his small force: Amélie.)

Three months was not a long time. To prove the value of his system, Bertillon had to hope that some malefactor would be arrested not only once but twice during that ninety-day span. Amélie urged him not to lose heart; she was confident he would succeed.

Still, his mood was gloomy late one afternoon in February 1883. Two months had passed, more than a thousand men and women had been measured after having been taken into custody, but as far as Bertillon could determine, no one had appeared on his cards twice. As if to mock him, seven of the men arrested that day had given their name as Dupont — for some reason an alias that was in vogue in Paris at that time. After measuring the seventh man, however, Bertillon’s memory clicked: the prisoner seemed familiar. Of course, he might have seen the man anywhere, but even his measurements rang a bell in Bertillon’s mind. Length of head 187 millimeters, width 156 millimeters.… He went to the card file and began to trace his way through the system, finally reaching a drawer with some fifty cards in it, all with the same approximate measurements as Dupont no. 7. Bertillon began to flip through them until he reached one with exactly the same measurements. On the original card the prisoner had given his name as Martin, but he was undeniably the same as the Dupont now in custody.

Confronted, Dupont at first denied that he had been arrested before. (The reason that Dupont was now on the street again was that his previous offense was so trivial that he had received no jail time: he had been caught stealing empty bottles.) He hoped to evade jail once again, as first-time offenders often did. Bertillon pointed out that his measurements were identical to those of the man arrested for stealing bottles. Dupont said it was a coincidence, so Bertillon showed him the photograph on the earlier card. There was no denying that similarity, and Dupont/Martin confessed.

It was the success Bertillon had hoped for. He could hardly wait to tell those few who had believed in him: Amélie and his father, who was now living in the countryside at Neuilly. When Bertillon visited him, he found that his father’s health was rapidly failing. Louis-Adolphe rallied a bit on hearing that his wayward son had at last accomplished something, but a full recovery was beyond him, and Bertillon and his brother, Jacques, were at the old man’s bedside when he died. Before passing, Louis-Adolphe told his sons, “I have always been in search of truth. You, my dear boys, must do the same.” 12

At the prefecture in Paris, skeptics still argued that the success Bertillon had proclaimed might have been merely a fluke. When Camecasse extended the time of the system’s trial, however, more recidivists began to appear. By the end of 1883, Bertillon was uncovering one every three days, and there was no doubt that bertillonage was here to stay. Amélie, who had written out 7,336 cards during that year, received her reward by becoming Mme. Bertillon; it was a marriage that continued to double as a partnership.


Despite the success, many in the police department resented the new system, just as they had earlier bridled at Vidocq’s methods. Whenever possible, they tried to discomfit Bertillon by making him come to the morgue and identify mangled bodies, a task he hated. Though such trips made him almost sick, he did finally gain the respect of his critics. One day a detective who faced the problem of identifying a decaying body with a very large head mentioned it to Bertillon. The circumstances — the corpse had been fished from the Marne — created some suspicion that the dead man had a criminal background, so Bertillon came to measure him. Although the body’s condition made it impossible to take all eleven critical measurements, there were enough to make an identification: Bertillon’s files showed that the man had been accused of assault a year before. That brought the police to question those involved and to discover that the victim had been murdered in revenge for the earlier incident. After that, identification of unknown corpses became a regular duty for Bertillon and his assistants.

The press, as always, was fascinated by crime stories, and the ensuing publicity helped Bertillon’s program. In November 1887, L’Illustration sent a reporter to Bertillon’s lab. The journalist wrote of men on pedestals, leaning over calibrated iron tables and seated on bolted-down chairs as they used calipers, meter sticks, and cameras. The technology of precise measurements, the reporter made clear, was supplementing and replacing the system of relying solely on policemen’s memories.

Gradually, Bertillon’s superiors realized how valuable his work was. On February 1, 1888, six years after his first success, he was made chief of the newly established Service of Judicial Identity. He set up shop on the top floor of the Palais de Justice. Perhaps it was to Bertillon’s liking that the office had to be reached via a long and steep staircase, discouraging casual visitors and those who didn’t have something important to report. By this time, his system had become well enough known that other police forces in Europe and America were beginning to adopt it. As it became widespread, some complained that taking the eleven measurements was too difficult for an ordinary underpaid police clerk and that not everyone was able to produce measurements as precise as those Bertillon himself made. The founder of the system brushed aside such objections, saying that “anyone who was not an imbecile could learn to measure in five minutes and never forget the process.” 13 In Paris alone, by the end of the first decade of its use, Bertillon’s measurement system led to the capture and identification of thirty-five hundred criminals. 14

Bertillon was continually searching for new ways to employ scientific methods in crime solving. At one point, he added to his reputation by making duplicate copies of identity photographs and cutting them into pieces. He divided the pieces into groups according to facial parts — noses, ears, eyes, and so forth — and compiled charts to show illustrations of the various types of each. By doing so, he was trying to find a way to assist policemen in making more precise descriptions of the suspects they brought into custody. Bertillon proved in a series of experiments that detectives who had failed to identify a suspect based on a regular photograph could often identify their target if just one feature was isolated. It was the skill of the detective “to analyze each of these traits separately and, consequently, to compare each isolated trait with the corresponding trait of another face.” 15 Bertillon put special emphasis on the ears of criminals for making an identification, for he believed ears were both difficult to disguise and easy to remember. Eventually, his efforts produced what was called a portrait parlé, or spoken portrait. Lecture courses trained policemen in the technique of observing and memorizing the formation of ears, noses, and other characteristics according to a gradated scale.

As the historian Matt Matsuda has written, “The nose, for example, was divided into three distinct features, its height, width and projection, each part precisely designated and numbered.… Bertillon maintained that as long as a particular anatomical feature had not received ‘a name permitting the form and descriptive value to be stored in the memory,’ it would remain ‘unperceived,’ as if it ‘did not exist.’ Seeing a face was a fine thing, but such memories were easily tricked. Better to concentrate the identifications of memory in language. As Bertillon put it, ‘it has been said for a long time: we only think that which we are able to express in words.’” 16

Similarly, modern artists and scientists, using their own methods, were finding fresh vocabularies, visual and verbal, for new concepts of the world. Artists in particular shared with Bertillon the requirement that viewers must put together the pieces themselves, forming an image from discrete elements. One can see the process in movies, cubism, impressionism, and statistics, the very science that underlies Bertillon’s method. His philosophy, which could easily have been adopted by Picasso, was written in large black letters on the wall of the room where he trained recruits: “The eye sees in each thing only what it is looking for, and it looks for what is already an idea in the mind.” 17

Just as the basis of anthropometry was the idea of providing precise measurements of the human body, so Bertillon hoped to develop other measuring tools to assist in crime detection. After having honed his photographic skills to produce mug shots, Bertillon started to bring a camera along to crime scenes. Police officers became used to his instructing them to touch nothing until he could make a photographic record, often from several angles, of a body or a burglary. Bertillon pasted his photographs onto cards that showed the precise scale of measurements on the border. Today’s crime scene investigators may use Polaroids or digital cameras to get instant images, but they are following the same procedure Bertillon pioneered more than a century ago.

Another innovation was the Bertillon Box, a sort of portable forensics unit that was small enough to slip into a coat pocket. Someone else had already used plaster of paris to make impressions of footprints; Bertillon went a step further in making metallic copies that were more durable and easily displayed to juries.

Bertillon also discovered that pure rubber, similar to that used by dentists, was a valuable crime scene tool. For example, if Bertillon wanted to copy the marks on a doorjamb or window frame made by a crowbar or “jimmy,” he would place softened rubber over the surface. When the rubber was pressed down, it would penetrate all the grooves. After the material had hardened, it would be removed carefully to show all the grains and indentations of the wood. Employing this as a negative mold, Bertillon would then make a positive one with plaster of paris. He could use this to identify the specific jimmy that had been used.

The instrument he was proudest of, however, was the dynamometer, which was designed to measure the force used by a house burglar to break locks on doors or windows. It was not, as even Bertillon’s biographer admits, a particularly useful instrument — merely one that satisfied the urge to quantify every aspect of a crime scene. It was a hit at the time, however, even being mentioned in a Fantômas story.


Bertillon could not have achieved the fame he did had his system not produced tangible results. One of his greatest successes came in March 1892, after a bomb exploded on the boulevard Saint-Germain outside the home of a judge who had presided over a trial of a group of anarchists the previous year.

To find out who had planted the bomb, police at first employed their tried-and-true method of using informants. A woman identified in police files as X2S1 pointed the finger at Chaumartin, a teacher at a technical school in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The informant had learned from Chaumartin’s gossipy wife that he had planned the bombing, although the act was carried out by a man named Léon Léger. Taken into custody, Chaumartin confessed his role in showing Léger how to build the bomb but said the other man had stolen the dynamite and hatched the plot. He told the police where Léger was staying and described him as a man about five feet four inches in height, with a dark beard and a sallow complexion. Chaumartin also informed them that Léger’s real name was Ravachol. That too was only an alias, though it was the name by which he became best known.

Ravachol had fled by the time police reached his quarters, but all over Paris and the surrounding area, short men with dark beards were stopped and questioned — to no avail. The newspapers were screaming for results in solving the outrage. “France is in the hands of impotent men who do not know what to do about the barbarians in our society,” complained a writer for Le Gaulois. 18 The new prefect of police, Henri Lozet, called Bertillon in and presented him with the only lead that had turned up: police in the town of Saint-Étienne recalled having arrested a man calling himself Ravachol on suspicion of theft. Ravachol was apparently a career criminal; smuggling, burglary, murder, and even grave robbing were among the offenses he had been suspected of committing. Fortunately, the police in Saint-Étienne had taken his measurements and description according to Bertillon’s method. On March 24, Bertillon received the data from the filing card in Saint-Étienne: “Claudius François Koenigstein, alias Ravachol; height: 1.663; spread of arms: 1.780; chest: .877; length of head: .186; breadth of head: .162; length of left foot: .279; left middle finger: .122; left ear: .098; color of left iris: yellowish verging upon green.” 19 Bertillon was certain that this precise data, circulated through the arrondissements of Paris, would eventually bring Ravachol to justice.

Before Ravachol could be apprehended, however, he struck again. Two weeks after the first bomb, a second exploded in the basement of a house, 35, rue de Clichy, home of the state prosecutor who had conducted the case against the anarchists. There seemed to be no doubt that this was the work of the same man who had planted the first device.

Anarchists weren’t shy about declaring their allegiances, and several anarchist newspapers proclaimed the bomber as a new hero of the movement. The police responded by rounding up all known anarchists, but none had physical measurements that matched those of the elusive Ravachol. Someone, however, disclosed an additional physical detail about the wanted man: he had a scar on his left hand. A few days later, once this description had been circulated, the owner of a restaurant on the boulevard Magenta noticed a customer with such a scar and immediately notified the police. When uniformed officers arrived, the man drew a pistol; fortunately he was not able to fire it, and after a struggle, the police cuffed him and led him away. On the way to the local police station, he tried to break free, shouting to others in the street for help: “Follow me, brothers! Vive l’anarchie! Vive la dynamite!” 20

Later that day, the suspect was brought to the headquarters of the Sûreté, where Bertillon prepared to photograph and measure him. The man again resisted, pointing out that his face was bruised and bleeding; in his struggle to escape, the police had beaten him. Bertillon courteously offered to put off the photography session if the man would allow his measurements to be taken. Impressed, he agreed. To Bertillon, the photograph was secondary to his beloved system of measurements, which never changed once a subject reached adulthood, and when the suspect’s measurements proved to be the same as those taken by the police in Saint-Étienne, Bertillon knew he had Ravachol in custody.

However, the evidence against Ravachol in the two Paris bombings was flimsy; he denied everything that Chaumartin said, and Chaumartin was himself the only person to have confessed to a role in the bombing. Furthermore, another bomb was set off while Ravachol was in jail — at the very restaurant where he had been arrested, killing the owner who had turned him in.

Nervously, the judges sent Ravachol to Saint-Étienne, where the pending charges against him seemed to offer a stronger case. Here, in fact, faced with the evidence, Ravachol gave up trying to deny his crimes and proclaimed himself the anarchist bomber. He defended himself by claiming that his violence was aimed at ending the suffering of the weak. “My object,” he declared, “was to terrorize so as to force society to look attentively at those who suffer.” 21

Sentenced to the guillotine, he was brought back to Paris for the execution on July 10, 1892. He sang as he was paraded through the streets of Paris: “If you want to be happy, hang your masters and cut the priests to pieces.” His final words, “You pigs, long live the Revolution!” were cut off when the blade of the guillotine severed his neck. 22

Bertillon was hailed as the savior of Paris. The capture of Ravachol earned him the Legion of Honor and a new position as head of the Bureau of Identification, which he would hold till his death. The general feeling was that his key identification had provided the only link between the criminal in Saint-Étienne and the Paris bomber and that without that identification, Ravachol might have continued his deadly career. The publicity did much to encourage police departments in other countries to adopt anthropometric identification systems.


After the Ravachol case, Bertillon’s reputation was secure, and the use of his system became as routine a procedure as fingerprinting is today. One notable case was solved personally by Marie-François Goron, the head of the Sûreté and one of Bertillon’s admirers. Goron, who had already gained fame for solving the Gouffé case, was asked by the Belgian government to try to find a swindler, Karslake, who was reputed to be in Paris. Goron immediately sought to question people who were rumored to have had dealings with Karslake. One in particular, Charles Vernet, struck him as being familiar — something in his attitude and manner awakened suspicion. But Vernet was a wealthy gentleman who had made a fortune on the Paris Bourse. His manner with Goron was open and indicated that he was willing to assist the police. Still, Goron could not shake his suspicions.

Goron began to search through police records from the time he had first joined the force. Finally he found what he was looking for. When he had been the police commissary of the Pantin Quarter in northern Paris, some twelve years earlier, a young clerk named Moulin had been stabbed to death after a fierce struggle in his home. The sounds of a fight had awakened a lodger on the floor below, who opened his door in time to see a man running down the stairs. The next day the police arrested a man named Simon, who was identified by the neighbor. Because the evidence was slight, he evaded the guillotine but was sentenced to twenty years at the French penal settlement at Cayenne in French Guiana.

Goron felt certain that Vernet, the wealthy stock trader, was that very man, but Simon should still have been serving his term on the blistering hot island prison. Checking further, Goron found that Simon had attempted to escape from Cayenne, accompanied by a fellow convict named Aymard. The pair had tried to make their way to the South American mainland, but pursuers found the body of Simon. Aymard had disappeared, but was presumed dead as well. Reading further, Goron found that the dead man’s face was battered beyond recognition; he had been identified only by his jacket, which bore the number assigned to Simon when he arrived at Cayenne.

Goron was not convinced. He was certain that if the Bertillon method was used, it would show Simon to be alive and prospering in Paris under the alias Vernet. The escaped prisoner could easily have switched jackets with Aymard after beating the man’s face so that it was unrecognizable. However, Vernet’s wealth and influential friends made him powerful enough that Goron could not simply march him into Bertillon’s laboratory and have him measured — one of the flaws in the method. Moreover, since Simon was legally dead, Goron would face the inertia of the police bureaucracy in trying to prove Simon was alive and still active. Goron had little to go on except his own intuition.

Vernet frequently appeared at society functions, cementing his reputation as a cultivated gentleman. Goron himself was a man of artistic and literary tastes and felt comfortable traveling in upper-crust society. Through a friend, Goron arranged for Vernet to be invited to a reception given by a distinguished woman sculptor at which some of the latest scientific achievements would be demonstrated. Goron and a “nephew” — actually a young detective — would also attend. When they arrived, Goron was carrying a parcel, which he put aside. Vernet, in formal evening dress, bowed graciously to the detective. The lights were turned down as the guests observed a demonstration of the then-new cinematograph, an early form of motion picture. When that was over, a scientist showed some of the uses of an electrometer, which measured electrical charges. This was at a time when electricity was still a strange and powerful force whose many uses were yet to be discovered, and the audience was fascinated. Then the hostess called on Goron to present his part of the evening’s entertainment.

The detective chief stood and made a little speech about the evolution of criminal investigation.

Years ago, the man whose duty it is to fight the enemies of society had only his own powers to rely upon. Between him and the criminal it was skill against skill, art against art. Then came the modern inventions — -railways, steamers, the telegraph, the telephone — and matters grew worse for the detective. Alas! it was the murderers, the forgers, who had the advantage, inasmuch as they could steal a long march upon Nemesis, and get their accomplices to use the telegraph and the telephone for their benefit.

The question, therefore, was to discover a system by which society and not its foes would reap the advantages. Ladies and gentlemen, this system has been found, and the man to whom we owe it, and whose name will go down to posterity, is M. Bertillon. 23

Goron’s nephew handed him the package, which he opened. Here, Goron explained, were the instruments used in the new science of bertillonage, “for the identification of those who, having previously fallen into the hands of the police, expect to escape detection by changing their names or altering, as they think, their appearance.” 24

The name Bertillon sent a thrill of excitement through the room. When Goron asked for individuals willing to be measured, several young women were the first to volunteer. Alphonse Daudet, a well-known writer, offered his own physiognomy for the measurements. While Goron was at work, he noticed Vernet moving to the door.

“Ah, there’s M. Vernet,” he cried. “Don’t go away. Come and be measured.”

The financier shook his head with a smile. “No, thank you,” he responded. “I have seen the thing done before.”

Seemingly joking, Goron appealed to two American girls who were standing by the door. “Catch him, ladies. Don’t let him escape.”

By this time, all eyes were on Vernet, and he was unable to get away without causing a scene. “This is a bad joke,” he told Goron.

“Oh, it’s part of the fun,” returned the detective.

Vernet was compelled to put the best face on things. He shrugged and permitted Goron to take his measurements. Goron recorded them on a blank Bertillon card and handed it to his “nephew,” who had in his pocket another card with the measurements of the supposedly dead convict Simon. After a brief comparison, he nodded to Goron, who took Vernet by the arm and led him to another room.

“I advise you not to make a scene,” Goron said. “I know you to be Simon, an escaped convict, and the suspected murderer of Aymard. You will have to come with me. My ‘nephew’ over there is a detective, and I have three others within call. Say good-bye to your hostess and follow me.”

Vernet’s nerve had taken him from Cayenne to Paris, and he tried to bluff his way through this setback as well. Drawing himself up, he told Goron coolly, “This is a mistake, which I will make you regret.” 25

After Bertillon himself had confirmed Goron’s measurements, however, Vernet confessed. He was sent to prison to await transport back to Cayenne. It was a fate he could not endure. He hanged himself in his cell.


Harry Ashton-Wolfe, a British citizen who worked for several years with Bertillon, later wrote a number of books about his experiences. Ashton-Wolfe was a friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he portrayed Bertillon as very much in the mold of the world’s most famous literary detective.26In “The Clue of the Blind Beetles,” Ashton-Wolfe described how a package containing the body of a man was found in the Bois de Boulogne, on the western edge of Paris. Indications were that the victim had been struck on the head from behind by a club or hammer. He wore only a shirt and trousers, but other items of clothing had been enclosed in the package with him.

Even though the ground was soft from recent rains, there were no traces of footprints or wheels. The wrapped package was heavy and unwieldy, and if it had been left there by one man, he must have been enormously strong. Bertillon took a stroll toward the Seine, which loops around the Bois, and found markings of a boat on the riverbank. Leading away from it were shapeless impressions, made, Bertillon deduced, by a man who had tied a thick cloth over his boots to conceal his tracks. Since the paper of the package was dry, it had to have been left there after midnight, when the rain had stopped.

Using a cable attached to the battery in his automobile, Bertillon activated a new device he had recently assembled. “A short arc, enormously magnified by complex lenses and reflectors, produced a concentrated beam of dazzling brilliancy, which could be focused to any angle,” Ashton-Wolfe wrote. While he held the lamp, Bertillon attached a mask containing magnifying lenses to his face and examined the body. Spotting something on the victim’s shirt, he called for a collodion slide, which was a sticky glass plate used to pick up tiny bits of evidence — in this case, what appeared to be insects. The body was then sent for an autopsy while the clothes went to Bertillon’s laboratory.

Ashton-Wolfe described the results: “In the hair, which, although still dark at the roots, was grey at the points, were fragments of coal, sand, and sawdust. The microscope proved the coal to be anthracite; the sand, silicate, ferruginous silicate, and quartz; and the sawdust, when split with a microtome, turned out to be composed of pine and oak. The stains on the shirt were also coal, intermingled with traces of mildew. When I carried my report to my chief, I found him at work on the collodion slide.” 27 Bertillon reported that “the two tiny insects we found on the shirt are Anophthalmi, a species of blind beetle. Moreover, they are quite colorless — absolutely devoid of pigment. They’ve bred for generations in the dark. Taken together with the coal and sand, I should say that it proves the body was hidden for a time in a cellar or a vault. It only remains to find it.” 28

Ashton-Wolfe commented that if they had to search all the cellars in Paris, it would be a long process. Bertillon frowned and told him, “I see you forget the formulae that apply to every premeditated murder: Who profits by the crime? and Seek the woman. One or the other will lead us to that cellar.” 29

Chemical analysis of the dead man’s clothing provided another clue. The coat and vest were covered with Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which were the bacteria used in fermenting alcohol. Bertillon surmised that the cellar they were looking for might well be in a café. Because a boat was used to transport the body, the café must be near the Seine. The oak and pine sawdust indicated that the same cellar must be used for sawing firewood.

Bertillon’s darkroom technicians produced a reconstructed photograph of the victim’s face, and detectives began to show it around the city’s cafés. Bertillon instructed Ashton-Wolfe how to proceed. “Say that you are searching for a relative.… Take care not to let it appear that you fear something has happened to him.” 30 Bertillon believed the man was an accountant or a clerk. His boots and hands showed no signs of manual labor, and his right sleeve was fresher-looking than the left. This indicated that, like many people in clerical jobs, the victim wore a protective lustrine sleeve on the end of the arm he used to write with. A typist, on the other hand, wore lustrine sleeves on both arms. 31

Bertillon’s assumptions were soon proved correct, as someone recognized the man in the photograph: he was a forty-year-old bookkeeper named Charles Tellier. Tellier had disappeared ten days earlier but had told his landlady he was going on vacation, so she had not reported him missing. Neighbors said Tellier was quite a ladies’ man and sometimes got into trouble when the ladies were married to someone else. He was also known to patronize illegal bookmakers. A search of his room turned up numerous betting slips, and some love letters that were signed “Marcelle.”

The landlady reported that Tellier ate his meals at a tavern in the Latin Quarter called La Cloche de Bois. Dressed as an art student (“peg-topped trousers and velveteen jacket, with the wide-brimmed hat and flowing tie” 32 ), Ashton-Wolfe went to investigate the place. He found that the proprietor, “red-faced, jovial, and generous,” was a burly man named Jacques Cabassou. Less congenial was Cabassou’s wife, who served as bartender and cashier and kept Cabassou from buying too many drinks and meals for the needy students who frequented the place. Ashton-Wolfe became more interested when he learned that her name was Marcelle, and he filched one of the meal bills she had written. He compared it with the handwriting on the love letters from Tellier’s room. They matched.

Before Ashton-Wolfe could look further into La Cloche de Bois, another detective, named Rousseau, came up with a new lead. One of Tellier’s co-workers, a man named Guillaume, had taken a leave from work at the same time that Tellier disappeared. Guillaume was known to have owed Cabassou a sizable debt from gambling losses. Rousseau followed Guillaume’s trail to Antwerp, where he had sold some diamonds. Tellier’s landlady had said that her tenant often wore rings and tiepins set with diamonds. The conclusion Rousseau had drawn was that Guillaume killed Tellier for his diamonds to pay for his gambling losses.

Bertillon expressed doubts but sent Ashton-Wolfe and Rousseau to arrest Guillaume, now back at work. The detectives took Guillaume back to his apartment and searched it. They found two rings and a tiepin from which the stones had been taken. Guillaume paled when they showed him the evidence, and said that someone must have planted it there. The detectives had heard that excuse before and took him before the juge d’instruction.

Guillaume’s story was that he had lost all his money gambling, and Cabassou gave him a chance to make it back. He gave him a letter of introduction to a man who needed a courier to take some diamonds to the market in Antwerp and sell them there. In return, Cabassou asked a favor: proof that Tellier and his wife were lovers. “As Cabassou said this,” Guillaume recalled, “he changed from the smiling, jovial fellow I had always known, until his face was that of a fiend.” 33 Now it was clear that Cabassou had a motive for killing Tellier, though Guillaume insisted that he had not found the evidence of infidelity Cabassou had demanded.

Ashton-Wolfe and Rousseau went back to La Cloche de Bois, still disguised as mildly drunken students. They were reluctant to arrest Cabassou without further proof. So, pretending to be interested in better wine than they were served, they persuaded the tavern keeper to take them to his cellar. There, Ashton-Wolfe found what appeared to be bloodstains. The two men arrested Cabassou and called in Bertillon to examine the scene.

Bertillon pointed out all the signs he had expected except for the blind insects. “See, there is the sand, the sawdust, the coal; and in a place filled with barrels and bottles of wine, you will have an abundance of the bacilli of alcohol fermentation.” Bertillon insisted that there must be another cellar, and a further search revealed “a tiny, pitch-dark recess, gained by a door under the stairs. Bertillon’s theory was vindicated: at last we stood in the place where the murder had been committed. Blood had splashed on the floor and walls, and the roof was alive with the Anophthalmi [the blind beetles].” 34 After killing Tellier, Cabassou had removed his diamonds and sent Guillaume to sell them, hoping to throw suspicion onto him. If it had not been for Bertillon’s scientific methods and acute observation, Guillaume might well have been convicted. With a note of triumph, Bertillon pointed out to Ashton-Wolfe that jealousy had been at the heart of the case. Cherchez la femme, as he had predicted, had been the key to solving it.


Accounts like this one, and some whose details are as fantastic as any in fiction, made Bertillon a legend in Paris — even throughout Europe and the Americas. Though he ostensibly shunned publicity, this kind of adulation would turn almost anyone’s head, and at the height of his career, Bertillon made a blunder in the most controversial investigation of his lifetime. It would stain his reputation ever after.

Bertillon was unwise, or unfortunate, enough to enter the Dreyfus case at the very beginning. Once he had given his opinion about the handwriting on the incriminating bordereau — that Captain Dreyfus was the author — he found it impossible to retract it.

Some writers have called Bertillon a “notorious anti-Semite” and suggested that it was bigotry that led him to that rash — and ultimately false — judgment. But there are no other instances in Bertillon’s life where he seems to have demonstrated anti-Semitism, and his brother, Jacques, was married to a Jewish woman. 35 Moreover, at the time Bertillon pronounced his judgment on the handwriting, he may not even have known the name of the person who was alleged to have written the bordereau, or that the suspect was Jewish. All he did know was that high-ranking military officers strongly believed that the writer was guilty. But though Bertillon probably did not act in the beginning out of anti-Semitism, he refused to change his mind as facts emerged to challenge his findings, and he came to speak of “the Jews” as being part of an attempt to undermine French military and governmental authority. 36 As a result, the Dreyfus affair divided the Bertillons, an egalitarian, anticlerical family, with Jacques becoming a passionate Dreyfusard who did not speak to his brother for several years.

What Bertillon was certainly guilty of — and this was quite characteristic of him throughout his career — was obstinately refusing to admit, once he had passed judgment, that he might be wrong. Through several courts-martial and trials over the next five years, Bertillon would be called on to testify. Offered a chance to change his mind by expanding on his earlier warning that a forgery might have been attempted, Bertillon decided that the forger was — Dreyfus himself! His rationale for this startling conclusion became increasingly convoluted. Bertillon posited that Dreyfus had adopted the formation of certain letters from the handwriting of his brother and wife in an attempt to disguise his own script. In support of his convoluted claim, Bertillon produced a schematic chart that made no sense to anyone who saw it. General Auguste Mercier, the minister of war who had staked his reputation on convicting Dreyfus, brought Bertillon to the president of the republic, Jean Casimir-Périer, to explain his reasoning. Casimir-Périer told a confidant that Bertillon was “given to an extraordinary and cabalistic madness.… I thought I had an escapee from La Salpêtrière or Villejuif [asylums] before me.” The word the French president used to describe the detective was “madman.” 37

The officers who were pressing for Dreyfus’s conviction, however, portrayed Bertillon’s judgment as a scientific certainty. Bertillon himself, swept along by the flattery, declared, “The proof is there and is irrefutable. From the very first day, you knew my opinion. It is now absolute, complete, and admitting of no reservation.” 38 He was never to soften that self-confident assertion, despite later evidence that overwhelmingly contradicted it.

Several more highly publicized trials marked the course of the affair, Bertillon testifying at all of them. At each, he violated the very principle that he tried to instill in those who adopted his system: to see as truly and objectively as possible. Abandoning that only subjected him to more ridicule. At the 1898 trial at which Émile Zola was tried for libel after he accused the minister of war of framing Dreyfus, Bertillon’s performance had drawn hoots of laughter from Zola’s supporters. There too, he brought as part of his evidence diagrams and charts and enlarged photographs to defend his system, but they only confused everyone who saw them.

An observer at the trial, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in his journal his impressions of the participants: “I nearly forgot the handwriting experts, absurd creatures incapable of agreeing on the most elementary deductions, flinging their extraordinary theories in one another’s faces and running down and abusing one another like Molière’s doctors. But one of them deserves special mention — Bertillon, who is a madman, a maniac, armed with the crafty, obstinate, and powerful dialectic that is the characteristic of interpretative psychosis.” 39 Zola’s defense lawyers mocked Bertillon so cruelly that he became tongue-tied. The judge rescued him by declaring, “Let us say that the witness does not want to speak.” 40

At Dreyfus’s second court-martial, Bertillon once again stunned objective observers with his labyrinthine presentations. When the defense attorney cross-examined him, he punctured Bertillon’s self-assurance, drawing laughter from the spectators. An English reporter described the scene: “Now and again M. Bertillon’s voice rose in hateful shrieks. There were interludes when he clenched his fist and struck the bar, swearing that Dreyfus was the traitor. The voice rang out with passion and excitement. You beheld in him the man vain unto madness with confidence in his atrocious phantasies. He was at last taking his revenge for all the insults of those who had called him a fit subject for an asylum of the insane.” 41

In April 1904, at the Cour de Cassation, three of France’s most eminent scientists reviewed Bertillon’s work. Using the cutting-edge scientific instruments of the time, the trio took a fresh look at the bordereau. They tested Bertillon’s argument that the writing had to have come from a person using the type of grid used in drawing military maps and utilized a macro-micromètre, developed for astronomy and the mapping of the skies, to check the handwriting and measure the distances between and within the letters. Their instruments were far more exact and technologically advanced than those of Bertillon, and in a sense, he was outmeasured. Stating their conclusions based on statistical probability, they demolished Bertillon’s argument and concluded that Bertillon’s work was devoid of any scientific value.

The scientists’ testimony was crucial in clearing Dreyfus of all charges. Perhaps it was surprising, then, that Bertillon was not correspondingly disgraced and discredited, like some of the military officers who had concocted false evidence against Dreyfus. In fact, Bertillon kept his job, and his prestige does not seem to have declined appreciably.


As impressive as the Bertillon identification system was, it had two flaws. First, it had little use at the crime scene itself: criminals did not leave their measurements behind. Second, its effectiveness was tied to accuracy and diligence. The system’s detractors proved correct when they asserted that police officers required very careful training to make measurements that were precise enough to be effective. Those two deficits were addressed in a new system that began to be developed shortly after Bertillon’s: fingerprinting.

Perhaps it was the humiliation he suffered when he ventured beyond strictly scientific matters that led to Bertillon’s other great failure — his refusal to recognize the importance of fingerprinting. It was particularly poignant, for had he reacted differently, he could have turned this failure into his greatest success.

From antiquity, it has been known that the patterns on the tips of fingers could be used as identification; ancient Chinese documents were sometimes signed with thumbprints. Mark Twain mentions thumbprint identification of a criminal in Life on the Mississippi, written in 1883. But the modern use of fingerprints is said to date from a letter written by Henry Faulds, an English physician working in Japan, to the journal Nature in October 1880. Faulds based his observations on his examination of Japanese pottery, where the makers had left fingerprints in the clay. He suggested that the prints never changed throughout a person’s life, and he also took the first step toward the classification of fingerprints by describing the three categories of whorls, loops, and arches. This suggestion prompted a response from Sir William Herschel, a British official in India, who since 1858 had been using fingerprints affixed to paper as a means of identification for the residents of Bengal, the territory where he served. Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, took notice of Herschel’s work and began to investigate further; his books and articles, published in the early 1890s, popularized the subject of fingerprint identification. Galton — an adherent of bertillonage — realized that fingerprints could be important as an identification tool, but he failed to grasp their real significance: that they could connect a criminal to the scene of the crime.

The first country in which fingerprints would be used to solve a crime was Argentina, owing to the influence of Juan Vucetich. Born in Croatia, Vucetich had immigrated to Argentina in 1881. He went to work at the Central Police Department in La Plata, where he impressed his superiors with his intelligence and hard work. Two years later he became head of the Statistical Bureau and was given the responsibility of organizing the Department of Identity. The country had been using the anthropometric system since 1889, so Vucetich had to apply bertillonage to the prisoners and suspects. When Vucetich read about fingerprinting, he immediately saw that it would revolutionize police work. Fingerprints, he realized, were easier to obtain and more accurate than Bertillon measurements — but his superior told him to stick to anthropometry.

Pursuing a dual track, Vucetich developed his own system of fingerprint classification while he was filling out anthropometry cards. He identified four common fingerprint traits: arches, prints with a triangle pattern on the right side, prints with a triangle pattern on the left side, and prints with triangles on both sides. Vucetich represented these patterns with the first four letters of the alphabet. He called the system dactiloscopia. 42

In 1892, a sordid murder case gave Vucetich the opportunity to show the worth of his system. In Necochea, a coastal town two hundred and fifty miles south of La Plata, Francisca Rojas informed the police that a man named Valásquez had killed her two children in a frenzy of jealousy. Taken into custody, Valásquez admitted that he loved Francisca, even that he had threatened her, but denied that he had killed her children. Even when police tried to beat a confession out of him, he did not change his story. The local authorities had Valásquez tied up and laid next to the bodies of the dead children overnight in the hope that guilt would make him confess. But the next morning the suspect still claimed he was innocent.

An informant told the police that Rojas, the children’s mother, was involved with a young lover who said he would marry her if not for her children. Focusing now on Rojas, the local police spent a night outside her house rattling windows and making ghostlike sounds, supposed to mimic an avenging angel. (Such was the advanced state of police investigation in Argentina at the time.) That had no effect either. The police now looked for help from the regional headquarters of La Plata. Vucetich sent Carlos Álvarez, one of his most trusted men, to try to solve the case.

Inspector Álvarez examined the crime scene and saw a stain on the bedroom door illuminated by the evening sun. A closer look showed it to be a bloody thumbprint. He cut it out with a saw and took the wooden piece to the station house. He called Rojas in and rolled her right thumb on an ink pad, then pressed the print on a piece of paper. Studying the two with a magnifying glass, he saw that the prints were the same. When he questioned Rojas again, she broke down and confessed. She was tried for murder and convicted.

Vucetich had followed the case and felt it proved his argument for the superiority of fingerprints. He wrote a friend, “I hardly dare to believe it, but my theory has proved its worth.… I hold one trump card now, and I hope I shall soon have more.” 43 He did, and within a few years, Argentina became the first country to change from bertillonage to fingerprints. With this success, Vucetich’s prestige — and his method — spread throughout South America.

A skeptical Bertillon saw fingerprints as a threat to his own system, which, among other things, had brought him the respect he craved. In 1893 he wrote in his Textbook of Anthropometry, “Skin markings have insufficiently distinct gradations to serve as a basis for archives.” 44 But starting the following year, he began to include some fingerprints on his file cards, taking the prints of the thumb and three largest fingers of the right hand, though the cards were still filed according to the anthropometric system.

Two failures made it clear that fingerprints were needed. In 1901, it was found that twin brothers curiously named Albert Ebenezer and Ebenezer Albert Fox — English criminals who provided alibis for each other — could only be differentiated by fingerprints, not by bertillonage. (Identical twins do not have the same fingerprints.) Two years later in the United States, another case showed the limitations of bertillonage. Two convicts at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, turned out to have identical measurements. Though unrelated, the men looked amazingly alike and even had the same name, Will West. The only way to tell them apart was through fingerprints.

Ironically, however, Bertillon is often credited as being the first European detective to apprehend a criminal based on fingerprint evidence alone. On October 17, 1902, he went to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré to photograph a murder scene. Joseph Reibel, the servant of a dentist named Alaux, had been murdered in the dentist’s office. A desk and a cupboard with glass panes had been broken open, but so little had actually been stolen that Bertillon immediately guessed that the killing had not been the product of a robbery. While photographing the scene, Bertillon found a pane of glass with fingerprints. He took it to his lab to see if it would be possible to photograph the prints. Sure enough, by placing the glass against a dark background and using an arc lamp, he obtained an excellent reproduction.

Then, because he had some fingerprints on file, having collected them for eight years by that time, he started his assistants checking to see if any matches would turn up. Of course, this was a laborious process because Bertillon’s files were still arranged by physical measurements, and in the search for fingerprint identification, each card had to be examined. Remarkably, a card was found with the same prints (luckily, the killer of Reibel had used his right hand on the pane of glass; Bertillon still did not take prints from the left hand) — those of an ex-convict named Henri-Léon Scheffer, who soon turned up in Marseilles. He confessed and was sent to prison for life. Bertillon’s surmise that the crime was not motivated by robbery proved correct. Reibel and Scheffer had been homosexual lovers, and when Reibel was no longer interested, Scheffer had killed him in a moment of passion.

This latest feat of deduction brought Bertillon new acclaim. A caricature even appeared in L’Assiette au Beurre, a Paris newspaper, showing Bertillon peering through a magnifying glass at some prints left on the grimy wall of a public toilet. But in this instance, Bertillon was annoyed by the publicity. He failed to see that the case illustrated perfectly the value of fingerprints: left at the scene of a crime, they could identify the perpetrator as certainly as if he had left a calling card. Even so, as a result of the case, a legend (frequently repeated) grew that Bertillon had actually invented fingerprint identification.

For Bertillon, this case was a mere episode. He would not listen to his French colleagues, such as Lacassagne and Locard, who by now recognized the importance of fingerprinting. Indeed, Locard had been fascinated from the beginning by the new method and performed painful experiments on himself — burning his fingers with cold and hot irons — to see if his fingerprints would change, finding that they did not. But Bertillon treated the new discovery as a minor supplement to anthropometry. He never repudiated his statement “My measurements are surer than any fingerprint pattern,” 45 and by 1910, France was the only country in Europe that was not using fingerprinting as its primary identification system.


With or without fingerprints, Bertillon was still successful in solving many crimes, and his accomplishments were recognized throughout Europe and the United States. Among his commendations was a medal from Queen Victoria for helping to identify bodies from the wreck of the ship Drummond Castle in 1896; though there were few comparative materials for Bertillon to work with, his ability to take precise measurements allowed some relatives to claim their dead.

The American muckraking writer Ida Tarbell came to interview Bertillon in 1894. “The prisoner who passes through his hands,” an admiring Tarbell wrote, “is subjected to measurements and descriptions that leave him forever ‘spotted.’ He may efface his tattooing, compress his chest, dye his hair, extract his teeth, scar his body, dissimulate his height. It is useless. The record against him is unfailing. He cannot pass the Bertillon archives without recognition; and, if he is at large, the relentless record may be made to follow him into every corner of the globe where there is a printing press, and every man who reads may become a detective furnished with information which will establish his identity. He is never again safe.” 46 Tarbell said that the Parisian apaches had invented a new phrase in their street argot: being arrested was referred to as un sourire pour le studio Bertillon, or “a smile for the Bertillon studio.” 47

In the same interview, Tarbell asked Bertillon whether his measuring system proved or disproved the theories of Cesare Lombroso and many other criminologists, who believed that certain physical characteristics were signs of criminality. He dismissed these theories, many of which were based on sheer racism. “No, I do not feel convinced that it is the lack of symmetry in the visage, or the size of the orbit, or the shape of the jaw, which make a man an evil-doer,” he answered, continuing:

A certain characteristic may incapacitate him for fulfilling his duties, thus thrusting him down in the struggle for life, and he becomes a criminal because he is down. Lombroso, for example, might say that since there is a spot on the eye of the majority of criminals, therefore the spot on the eye indicates a tendency to crime; not at all. The spot is a sign of defective vision, and the man who does not see well is a poorer workman than he who has a strong, keen eyesight. He falls behind in his trade, loses heart, takes to bad ways, and turns up in the criminal ranks. It was not the spot on his eye which made him a criminal; it only prevented his having an equal chance with his comrades. The same thing is true of other so-called criminal signs. One needs to exercise great discretion in making anthropological deductions. 48

Anthropometry led to a significant change in the way nations viewed their populations. A French law passed in July 1912 required “nomads and itinerants” — people such as traveling peddlers and the like — to carry “anthropometric identity cards.” 49 These cards, which included the bearer’s name, date and place of birth, parents’ names, a photograph, and fingerprints, were the forerunners of the national identity card.

Significantly, it became a crime not to carry evidence of who one was. Neither criminals nor law-abiding citizens could disappear into a crowd or find anonymity by moving from place to place. As the requirements to provide proof of identity grew stronger, one would always be connected with one’s past through records.

Of course, in some places, people resisted encroachments on their privacy, mourned their right to be anonymous. This may explain the popularity of fictional criminals, particularly those — like Fantômas — who were able to change their appearance and identity easily.

In 1911, a short time after the theft of the Mona Lisa, the reporter Katherine Blackford interviewed Bertillon about his system. He demonstrated several kinds of measuring and photographic equipment. At the end of their talk, she wrote, “we went up to the roof of the Palais de Justice [where he worked] whence we could see the Panthéon, the towers of and spire of Notre Dame, and Sainte-Chapelle. Only a few days before, on account of the theft of ‘la Joconde’ from the Louvre, he had photographed this view.” 50

Bertillon was now fifty-eight years old, with a worldwide reputation. Robert Heindl, commissioner of police in Dresden, said of Bertillon’s long term of service, “Paris became the Mecca of the police, and Bertillon their prophet.” 51 Solving the theft of the masterpiece would be the capstone of his career, if he could accomplish it. In a promising development, two suspects were soon brought into custody. However, they would lead Bertillon and the Sûreté on a false trail into the world of art, which was in the midst of its own identity crisis: struggling to define reality and rediscover how to portray it.

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