Obverse and reverse of a Bertillon card. (Courtesy of the Archival Collection of the Albany County Hall of Records, Albany, New York)n.burr-TIL-yən KARDa double-sided card used by police agencies and penal institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to record information on suspects and criminals and consisting of photographs of the individual from the front and the side, the person’s name, specific measurements, identifying marks, criminal history, and aliases, among other informationGridack 2009, 188Bertillon cards are underutilized resources, often regarded as the remnants of an antiquated nineteenth century police identification system. Through the application of computer search techniques, data manipulation, and outreach, not only can institutions provide their patrons access to this unique information, these collections can in turn help revitalize their respective repositories.NLM 2014Bertillon cards ¶ In 1879, Paris police clerk Alphonse Bertillon devised a system of anthropometry (“the measurement of man”) that could be used to identify people held in police custody, based on fourteen identical measurements, a standardized photographic portrait (frontal and profile), the classification of facial and bodily characteristics, and the notation of scars and tattoos.Jimerson 2015, 265–266Placing these records in context, Caswell effectively traces these mug shots to earlier French colonial police photography and the Bertillon system for identifying and indexing criminals.
The French police officer Alphonse Bertillon invented the Bertillon card and system, and the mug shot, which is a feature of every Bertillon card. The Bertillon system (also known as bertillonage) was an early methodical means of identifying criminals biometrically and was, thus, the precursor to the use of fingerprints and DNA for this purpose. Each Bertillon card consisted, most importantly, of specific measurements, an accounting of the identifying marks, and two mug shots of the suspect or criminal. The specific placement of these data differed, with some Bertillon cards displaying photographs alone on the obverse, some displaying the photographs and measurements there, and later cards adding the person’s fingerprints in addition to the original data required by bertillonage. The cards themselves formed just one part of the system, which also consisted of complex filing practices to allow for retrieval of a card by the features of the person, rather than personal name or registration number. The pronunciation of “Bertillon” is an Anglicization, which sometimes leads to the misspelling of the word as “Bertillion.”