Bertillon Identities: Who are they?


Bertillon Identities: Who are they?

Recording data set after data set of prisoner identification cards, a curious abstraction occurs.  The brain seeks the numbers, driving the input process of thirty or fourtly files in a digitized sequence and distilling the final phyiscal traces of these men into an endless chain of data.  The numbers are cold, firm, but not completely infallible (How did his arm get THAT much smaller between 1902 and 1906?)  The computer asks for the data, but the card itself tells another story.  The man himself looks back through the photograph.  He is typically of European or African descent, and almost always relavtively young.  Sometimes he is an immigrant.  The youngest in the batch, claiming to be 16, is a baby-faced adolescent.  The oldest, not more than 35, appears haggard beyond his years.   He represents a cross-section of rural life in early twenthieth-century Ohio, often listing "farmer" in addition to another profession.   He is also labeled by his crime: larceny, horsetheivery, forgery, manslaughter, and so on.  The photograph, in the case of the Bertillon identification cards, is the criminal's one limited space of autonomy.  Many of the men stare blankly ahead with a hard stare; they look straight into the camera and defiantly reveal nothing of themselves.  Others, especially the younger boys, cannot hide their fear and confusion.  One teenager, imprisoned for throwing rocks at cars, stares out on the verge of tears.  Another set subtly smirk at the camera, their eyes dancing with private amusement.  A cocky teamster cracks a smile, and seemingly mocks the camera, the Bertillon process, the ever-diligent R.U. Hastings who has just taken his measurements, and, perhaps, even the twenth-first century researcher who still finds these cards relevant.  

The photographs reveal a humantity not capable of being described, contained, or limited by the numerical system of measurement and cataloging.  The sublte reactions intueted from the photographs are subjective, they can never be known.  But the human side of the Bertillon process could become an increasingly interesting question.  Recent research into the use of the Bertillon system with the Chinese Exclusion Act tenatively reveals that subjects found the process humiliating because they were treated like criminals.  This begs several questions: How well were the criminal identification cards known to the broader population?  What were the societal implications of submitting the such a system? And, pertaining to the subjectivity of the men in the photographs, how does the limited autonomy of the photograph reveal the identity of the man behind the numbers?

  • Agency
  • Identity
  • Decomposing Bodies


Jen, Very interesting!  To

Jen, Very interesting!  To make the cards were the photographs taken at the same time the measurements were taken?  Was there a prescribed sequence -- photo, then measurements, or vice versa?  Seems to me that the precise protocol would make a difference, particularly with regard to how the subjects interacted with the camera.

I will need to get together with the Bertillon team to discusss my own "decomposing bodies" project, on the soldiers lot at Allegheny Cemetery.  Sometime in the next few days I will post about that project and the linkages I see between them.