Victorian Criminal Identification before Fingerprinting: The Bertillon Record

Measurements taken for the Bertillon Record
It always makes me particularly sad when I have to cut out a scene that has a really neat bit of historical research in it. One of those deleted scenes from The Binding of Saint Barbara (my novel in progress as of July 2016), involved The Bertillon Record.

For those of you who like crime fiction or detective stories, you will really enjoy this. Before fingerprinting, they had a different kind of record system to keep track of people in the penal system.

These records involved taking down detailed information about the person, things like height, weight, physical, and facial characteristics, etc. It also included a photograph, i.e. the first mug shots.

According to Bertillon System of Criminal Identification on The National Law Enforcement Museum, a French criminologist named Alphonse Bertillon came up with the system in 1879, and it was introduced in the United States when the Illinois State Penitentiary warden, R.W. McClaughry, translated the system from French to English. It quickly became widely used.

However, by the turn of the century, fingerprinting was in use and being included in the Bertillon Record. After an incident of mixing up two prisoners with the same name and remarkably similar Bertillon Records, fingerprints began taking over the identification system.

Mental Floss has a fantastic article on The Bertillon Record as do these others:


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