Fingerprints and the Forensic World (Part 2)

10 Oct

Anthropometry and Bertillonage

Anthropometry (anthrop means human; metry means to measure) is defined as the study of human body measurements for use in anthropological classification and comparison. Simply put, it is the making of body measurements in order to compare individuals with each other.

In 1882, using anthropometry, French police officer Alphonse Bertillon developed the first truly organized system for identifying individuals. Believing that the size of the human skeleton did not change after about age 20 and that each person’s measurements were unique, he created a system of body measurements that became known as bertillonage. According to Bertillon, the odds of two people having the same “bertillonage measurements” were 286 million to one.


This belief led Bertillon to state that all people could be distinguished from one another by key measurements, such as overall height, seated height from head to seat, length and width of the head, right ear length, left little finger length, and width of the cheeks among others.

His greatest triumph came in February, 1883, when he measured a thief who said his name was Dupont and compared his profile to those of known criminals. He found that Dupont’s measurements matched a man who had been arrested in 1882 under the name of Martin. Under questioning, the thief finally admitted that he was both Martin and Dupont, but that his real name was neither Martin nor Dupont.


For many years, this system was accepted by many jurisdictions, but by the dawn of the 20th century cracks began to appear. The measurements were inexact and subject to variation, depending upon who made them. Also, since the measurements in two people who were of the same size, weight, and body type varied by fractions of a centimeter, flaws quickly appeared and the system was soon discontinued.

Its death knell tolled with two famous cases:

The Will West Case:

Though landmark in its importance, this case was an odd comical coincidence. On May 1, 1903, Will West came to Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. The records clerk apparently thought that the man looked familiar, but the new inmate denied ever having been in the prison before. As part of his intake examination, anthropometry was performed and officials were surprised to find that Will’s measurements exactly matched those of William West, another inmate at Leavenworth. The two men even looked eerily similar.

They were brought together into the same room, but each stated that they were neither brothers nor related in anyway. Fingerprints were then used to distinguish between the two Wills after which Leavenworth dumped anthropometry and switched to a fingerprint-based system for identifying prisoners. New York’s Sing Sing Prison followed a month later.

Was the similarity between Will and William West simply a bizarre coincidence? Not really. A report in The Journal of Police Science and Administration in 1980 revealed that the two were actually identical twins. They possessed many fingerprint similarities, nearly identical ear configurations (unusual in any circumstance except with identical twins), and each of the men wrote letters to the same brother, same five sisters, and same Uncle George. So, even though the brothers denied it, it seemed that they were related after all.

Bertillon reluctantly agreed to add fingerprints to his bertillonage profile. However, he only added those of the right hand, which proved to be a huge mistake.

The Mona Lisa Theft:

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The thief left a clear thumbprint on the glass that protected Da Vinci’s masterpiece. To assist investigators, Alphonse Bertillon added his profiles to the investigation. Unfortunately, he had no classification system to streamline the search through his thousands of data cards, resulting in he and his assistants spending several months digging through his files. They found no matches. Two years later, the police apprehended Vicenzo Perugia and his prints matched the one found at the crime scene.


It turned out that Perigia’s prints were among those in Bertillon’s files all the time. Why no match? The print found at the scene was from Perugia’s left thumb, while Bertillon’s files only contained that of the right. This unmasked yet another flaw in Bertillon’s anthropometric system and led to it falling into disfavor as a means for identification.


6 responses to “Fingerprints and the Forensic World (Part 2)

  1. Karen in Ohio

    October 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Poor Bertillon. He did so much for forensic science, and just because he didn’t start out with it whole and perfect he came under criticism.

    So much of life is that way, isn’t it?


  2. Bob McAuley

    October 11, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Just to clarify:
    NYS began the state prison fingerpint system in 1902, prior to the West twins case.

    October 19, 1904, Inspector Ferrier and Major M. W. McClaughry began fingerprinting all inmates at the Leavenworth, KS, federal prison. The reason behind the switch to fingerprints was the Worlds Fair in 1904 .

    Click to access 225321.pdf


  3. D.P. Lyle, MD

    October 11, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Actually in 1902 virtually everyone was still using the Bertillon system because fingerprints were still new, poorly understood, and not widespread. The first criminal case involving fingerprints had only been 10 years earlier in Argentina. Yes many jurisdictions were beginning to obtain fingerprints and store them but they had not yet become the standard. The Will West case was important because it uncovered flaws in the old system and helped begin the movement toward a fingerprint system. This did not happen overnight. It was not that we used one system one day and the other the next but rather was a gradual change that took many years. And yes the exhibit of fingerprinting at the 1904 World’s Fair was an important part of stimulating this transition by getting the word out and showing more people exactly what fingerprints were and how useful they can be. Thanks for your comment and especially your links which are very helpful.


  4. Bob McAuley

    October 12, 2009 at 8:48 am

    You are correct about Juan Vucitech who started his system in 1891. Scotland Yard had a fully functional Fingerprint Office by the end of 1901, due to the recommendations of the Belper Committee.The Belper Committee in 1900 was instrumental in the downfall of the Bertilon system by recommending that it be replaced by “Mr. Henry’s system”. The first British court conviction by fingerprints being obtained in 1902.


  5. Dr. Georg Ramsauer

    May 31, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Bertillionage was not very reliable

    Liked by 1 person


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