Forget Sherlock: here’s the real deal | Netherhall House

Think Sherlock Holmes was the greatest detective to ever have lived? Well, think again… Apart from the obvious fact that Mr Holmes was but a fictional character, it seems as though Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had a weak spot for a well-known nineteenth-century criminologist. I am talking about Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914). Though hardly remembered today, Bertillon was by far the most prominent criminal specialist of his time. In The Adventure of the Naval Treaty (1911), Holmes is portrayed as expressing an ‘enthusiastic admiration of the French savant’. In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), one of Holmes’s clients, Dr James Mortimer, comes to him and the following dialogue ensues:

“I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognized that I am myself an unpractical man and because 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 honour 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.

Even Richard Farebrother and Julian Champkin, when writing about Bertillon for Significance magazine, describe him as ‘more expert than Sherlock Holmes’. But who was this mysterious man? What was it that made him famous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? And why was he ultimately condemned to popular oblivion?

Alphonse Bertillon was born in 1853 in Paris. The most notable feature of his household was definitely a passion for statistics. Both his father, Louis-Adolphe, and his brother Jacques devoted their lives to the study and analysis of data, publishing significant books about demography, social structures and other related fields. The former was chief of the Bureau of Statistics. The latter’s influence was so extensive that some scholars have argued that Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, borrowed many concepts and ideas from Jacques Bertillon himself. Although his family background played a crucial role in the shaping of his later professional career, at an earlier stage Alphonse did not seem to stand out as particularly gifted. Unlike his father and brother, he did not receive any formal education; in fact, he was expelled from the Imperial Lycée of Versailles. After spending four years in the French army, Alphonse Bertillon managed to obtain a low-ranking position in the Parisian police. It was in 1879 that Alphonse, very much due to his father’s power and prestige, began working as a police clerk.

When Alphonse Bertillon became employed at the Prefecture of Police in Paris, many sectors of society were profoundly worried with the existence and persistence of crime. One of the ideas that most circulated among French thinkers and opinion-makers at the time was that of contagion du mal. With the emergence of new forms of transport and communication, news travelled faster than ever before; with the empowerment of the middle classes and the growth in literacy, newspapers sold like never before. People became more aware of the world around them. As distances shortened and speed increased, it was much easier for one to know what was happening and where. Crime grew into something accessible as far as information was concerned. Additionally, given the availability and diffusion of data, the nineteenth century witnessed a statistical rise in criminality. Both the public perception of crime and its statistical increase seemed to support the notion of contagion du mal: for many people in France and elsewhere, crime was augmenting and evil was spreading. It was in this context that Bertillon gained prominence, since it was his purpose to reverse this tendency by means of scientific procedures.

Bertillon’s family background as well as his personal love for method and order surely helped him in his pursuit. His major concern was the identification of criminals. Specifically, he endeavoured to establish a universal method that would enable police officers to identify those who had already been arrested. Prior to Bertillon’s activities, the French police did not really have a clear and defined system to assist in the process of criminal identification: its techniques were ad hoc, that is, largely conditioned by several particular circumstances. Bertillon sought to put an end to this situation, and he did so through standardisation. He realised that identifying arrestees by name and address, usual until then, was often unreliable and criminals resorted to deceit to escape heavy sentences. Garnering very little support from his colleagues, Alphonse Bertillon was forced to use his spare time to elaborate and develop his method. It was in La Santé, a Parisian prison, that he embarked on his ambitious project of reforming polices forces in France and around the world. Having recourse to anthropometry, Bertillon attempted to displace the old identification system, and to create a new one that would have strong scientific sustenance.

His novel technique relied on physical measurements. Such emphasis on calculating and quantifying was shared by his anthropologist friend Paul Broca. In practical terms, what Bertillon did was to measure eleven key dimensions of criminals’ bodies; he would then store and compile this information, which would in the future be used to identify repeat offenders. He recorded data about individual features such as shapes of the nose, ear, chin and brow. To help with this whole process, Bertillon came up with the idea of mug shots. He was also responsible for the creation of many other techniques and instruments in the realm of forensics – for instance, crime scene photography – that were supposed to help in a wide variety of problems, such as the preservation of footprints or the determination of the strength employed in breaking and entering cases. In one of his writings, Bertillon aphoristically captured the essence of his most important invention, his method: ‘Every measurement slowly reveals the workings of the criminal. Careful observation and patience will reveal the truth.’ Thus came into existence the anthropometric system of identification or, as it was commonly called, bertillonage.

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Bertillonage soon proved to be successful. For one thing, it was implemented all across France. In 1883, for example, Bertillon identified 49 recidivist criminals; in 1884, this number raised to 241. In a letter to The Times written in 1909, Francis Galton states: ‘it was in or about 1888 […] the Bertillon system, based on the classified measurements of specified parts of the body, was new and very much in vogue.’ But bertillonage was by no means restricted to France; its influence was felt throughout Europe and indeed the world. It was embraced by the United States in 1887 and by Britain in 1894. In trying to emphasise the importance of bertillonage in European criminology, Robert Heindl, the royal commissioner of police in Dresden, famously wrote in 1911 that Paris was ‘Mecca of Police and Bertillon their prophet.’ Perhaps the peak of Bertillon’s system happened in 1892, when it led to the identification of Ravachol. A known propagandist of the deed, a wanted anarchist, Ravachol was condemned to life imprisonment for his bombings at the houses of two prominent judiciary officials. However, having been identified by Bertillon as a repeat offender named Koenigstein, he was additionally found guilty of three murders and thus sentenced to death.

Yet Bertillon’s standing would not last long. Firstly, bertillonage was rapidly supplanted by fingerprinting, a method allegedly put forward by Sir William Herschel, Sir Francis Galton and Sir Edward Henry. In the province of Bengal, India, for example, figures are revealing: there were only 59 recognitions by anthropometry in 1889, as opposed to 334 just three years before, in 1886; with regard to fingerprint recognition, there was registered an increase from nought in 1886 to 569 in 1889. Such a shift had its roots in the comparative inefficiency of bertillonage. Indeed, Bertillon’s system bore some problems of practical nature. On the one hand, it was slower and required more effort than fingerprinting; on the other, it was prone to both individual error and instrumental flaws: ‘the slightest defect in a caliper could lead to an error greater than the tiny permissible margin and thus make the measurement useless for establishing identity’, writes Chandak Sengoopta. There was yet another problem with bertillonage, its application to colonial contexts. Although Bertillon strived to construct a precise vocabulary to describe bodily features that would accompany measurements, such terminology was only pertinent in Europe. Differences in eye or skin colour were less present in territories such as India, thereby rendering these distinctions irrelevant; besides, what Bertillon described as a large head would not be considered so in other countries.

Secondly, the personal discredit that fell upon Bertillon himself would also turn against his method. In the 1910s, Bertillon was accused of hindering the investigation of Mona Lisa’s robbery. When, in 1911, la Giaconda was stolen from the Louvre, Bertillon was promptly called to analyse the crime scene. He found the fingerprint of the thief’s left thumb, but he was not able to match it because his database was exclusively composed of right fingerprints. Bertillon’s reputation worsened in 1913, when the burglar was discovered. Vicenzo Peruggia, the thief, not only had been the one who built the Mona Lisa’s glass frame but he had also been previously arrested in France, which would have made his identification much easier. But the most damaging event to Bertillon’s notoriety was his involvement in the (in)famous Dreyfus affair. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of passing on French military secrets to the German Empire. At the basis of the indictment stood an unsigned letter – the famous bordereau – found in a bin of the German Embassy, containing confidential information. Though not a handwriting expert, Bertillon was called to comment on the case; somehow pressured by the army, Bertillon attributed the authorship of the bordereau to Dreyfus. His was an unconventional and slightly baffling argument: for the first time in history, it seems, the theory of ‘autoforgery’ was advanced. However, this managed to convince the judges and Bertillon’s contention was regarded as crucial in the subsequent conviction and deportation of Dreyfus. It was thus that the American Law Review described, in 1901, Bertillon’s statements:

Bertillon’s testimony was a lecture, lasting for six or seven hours, unbroken by a single question. […] A probable explanation of this curious vagary in a man of Bertillon’s reputation will, perhaps, be found in the cause of that very reputation. As everyone knows the “Bertillon system” is based upon minute measurements; he himself lives in an atmosphere of millimetres. What cannot be determined by measurement, has no value to him. In short, his system has become with him simply an obsession. Given this obsession in a man of highly nervous temperament, such as Bertillon, and the “theory” is psychologically accounted for. The world, however, owes him thanks for a new idea, the conception of a man forging his own handwriting!

Ten years later, in 1904, Dreyfus was found innocent of all charges, the whole affair being bound up with broader themes, conceptions and implications, namely related to nationalism and anti-Semitism. Bertillon’s mode of reasoning was utterly rejected and bertillonage suffered another blow.

Bertillon died in 1914. Raymond Fosdick, writing in 1915, sums up the last years of Bertillon’s life by asserting that ‘For a decade his prestige and personality were the only supports of a system that in Europe, at least, had been fast losing ground. Persistently, even stubbornly, he endeavored to save the method which was the product of his genius and which bore his name, but he lived to see it discarded in nearly every country in Europe except his own.’ Some would say that Bertillon was more of a showman than a scientist who, having no proper training, made use of authoritative language to create an imprecise method. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bertillon completely revolutionised forensic science: he brought meaning into the otherwise chaotic field of criminology. True, his method was far from perfect. True, some of his personal investigations resulted in failure. Yet some of his inventions (notably, the mug shot) and, most importantly, the tradition of meticulousness and standardisation that he conceived still prevail.  Alphonse Bertillon epitomises the scientific era. His life reflects the technological advancements that emerged as a result of successive industrial revolutions. His life mirrors the optimistic rationalism that, in conjunction with the overappraisal of that which was quantifiable and measurable, pervaded much – though not all – of nineteenth-century thought. But Bertillon also points towards the surfacing of scientism. His story, particularly in that which relates to the Dreyfus affair, reveals the complex interplay between science, politics and culture. His was an age where scientific language was often subject to appropriation by and incorporation into political and cultural discourses. And it was alongside Bertillon, and often feeding off from his legacy, that subjects such as eugenics appeared. Greater than Holmes and even than himself, Bertillon perfectly captured the spirit of his age.


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