Runners-up: Alphonse Bertillon

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 2, 2013

The case for considering Alphonse Bertillon in an examination of great detectives, and the reason for excluding him from my eventual final nine, are both neatly expressed in a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognize that I am myself an unpractical man, and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—’

‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be 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 better not consult him?’

‘I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone.’

Just so: among the broad universe of criminology, Alphonse Bertillon is absolutely a major figure, but, within criminology’s more practical sphere, i.e. detection, Bertillon cannot be ranked with either Sherlock Holmes or his real-life counterparts because Bertillon was not a practicing detective.

Even so, one encounters Bertillon’s name consistently in studying the early history of detection, and with good reason. Bertillon was more a theorist, or perhaps a technician, but as such he was unquestionably an important influence on the profession.

Bertillon’s story also follows very naturally from that of the man who usually begins a study of detection, i.e. Vidocq. Born a few years before Vidocq passed from the scene, Bertillon became the next most significant figure in the history of law enforcement in Paris, in addition to his broader importance. Like Vidocq’s, Bertillon’s innovations were also received with little enthusiasm initially, though in Bertillon’s case he remained inside the prefecture, rather than making the overt break which led to open hostilities against his predecessor.

Bertillon struggled against another problem Vidocq had confronted, as well: reliable identification of criminals in a world before DNA, fingerprinting or networked databases. Vidocq had developed an extensive file card system, but without his own prodigious memory for faces to supplement it, this proved unwieldy and near useless. By Bertillon’s time, even with advances in photography, police were thus still facing much the same problem of how to recognize repeat offenders when they provided false names.

The solution Bertillon came up with might be likened to pneumatic tubes, or perhaps a 200-disc CD changer: thoughtful and fairly effective solutions involving genuine new thinking, but at the same time of such Rube Goldberg complexity that, for all that their very function was amazing, they were quickly rendered impractical curiosities upon the discovery of an alternative that was much simpler, at least in its use. In the case of the Bertillon system, the role of mp3 compression or electronic mail was played by fingerprinting.

The association of fingerprints with identification long preceded Bertillon, actually. But until the late 19th century, all those who experimented with it for police use (Vidocq among them) failed to overcome the problem of finding reliable, practical materials to make the idea workable. Bertillon took a different approach to the same concept of unique physical differences. Instead of identifying an individual by one unique pattern, Bertillon developed a system of many precise measurements of different parts of the body and face, which in combination amounted to a profile that was both consistent through a person’s lifetime and completely unique.

For a few decades around the turn of the last century, the Bertillon System (also Bertillonage, or Bertillonism) won over police departments throughout much of Europe and the new world. Even then, however, a rival system of identification was preparing for a remarkable come-from-behind rally. Fingerprinting is claimed by more than one inventor (like the rogues’ gallery, and indeed many innovations), but regardless of who played what role in combining the old idea with the right modern materials, once this was accomplished fingerprinting was nearly a classic “overnight success years in the making.”

Bertillonism didn’t vanish instantly. It was a familiar and entrenched incumbent, and that can count for much (as with the persistence of Imperial measurements in a mostly metric world, e.g.). William Pinkerton expended considerable effort encouraging America’s police to make the switch, a rare issue on which he found himself on the same side as his rival William Burns. Eventually fingerprinting won out, less because of high-profile advocates, and more because of front-line-grunt practicality: like Vidocq’s file system, in a way, Bertillonism was simply too reliant on a precise and dedicated intellect like that which first developed the system. The Bertillon system required patient, even fussy attention to a long list of details, every time. Fingerprinting, by contrast, is quick, and requires little expertise for the initial steps.

In 1902, Bertillon actually helped solve a murder case by matching a fingerprint on a piece of glass from the crime scene with that of a known criminal. The modest reputation as a pioneer in the method that followed was, however, ironic at best; Bertillon had added fingerprint records to his own system, but insisted to his dying day that they were no adequate substitute for Bertillonism, which he could see by then was on its way out.

Alphonse Bertillon’s career was more than just the invention of Bertillonism and its eclipse by fingerprinting. He introduced other advances in the application of photography and forensics to criminology, and even played key roles in solving specific crimes on occasion. Unfortunately, one of his experiments produced an even more dismal result than Bertillonism’s bubble; amid the Dreyfus Affair, Bertillon applied handwriting analysis to key documents in the case and first declared them unlike the penmanship of accused spy Alfred Dreyfus, then changed his verdict and claimed that Dreyfus had probably disguised his handwriting but had written the incriminating texts. Some authors suggest that Bertillon was responding to pressure from French authorities, but whatever his motivation, it did little to prevent the later decline of Bertillon’s reputation.

In this, however, Bertillon probably suffered as much from bad luck as anything, and moreover has good company in most of the great detectives even if he was never genuinely one of their number. Some met with similar scandal, others managed to avoid it, but in the long term it made little difference against the simple but tremendous forces of time and forgetfulness.

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