IDENTIFICATION PART II: ROLL THEM BONES
may have fallen behind in devoloping cutting-edge science in recent decades, but at one time it was French scientists who led the way in exciting theoretical disciplines. One of these disciplines was physical anthropology
, the study of how humans interact with their environment through their bodies.
One of the people who was interested in this new science was a man named Alphonse Bertillon
. He was an avid collector of medical data (which is looked upon as weird and spooky today, but was considered a harmless diversion back in the mid-1800's). He thought that a way to identify people would be by measuring the bones of the body. The idea was that the length of the bones never changed after the person reached maturity, and it could be worked out to a string of numbers using a mathematical formula. Go to the section of the files where all the cards that had this same formula were stored and root around until you found a match. His Bertillon System of indentification was adopted in France in 1882. This system worked pretty well, but there were both advantages and disadvantages to it.
The major drawback was the large number of measurements required
. At least 30 different body parts would have to be carefully measured, something that would be impossible if the suspect was fighting or resisting. At least 30 different cards would have to be filled out PER PERSON for the measurements to be fully cross-referenced. This also means that you'd have to find 30 different places to store these measurement cards so they wouldn't be mixed up. As the number of files and cards grew, the time to search the archives to verify the identity of a suspect stretched to several hours per person.
There were a few advantages. No matter what disguise a person assumed they would still have the same measurements. As long as accurate measurements were taken they couldn't hide their identity. Another plus was that a person's remains could be positively identified as long as most of the skeleton could be found (and he had been measured in the past). It was also the first time that easily verifiable identification could be sent quickly (send the measurements in a telegram).
So the Bertillon system was adopted by almost every law enforcement agency in the Western hemisphere. One of the most enthusiastic was the Pinkerton Detective Agency
, which had a collection of Bertillon cards that rivaled any police department's in the world.
The procedure to make the system work and the enormous filing headache was a major pain in the fundament, but there really wasn't a better system. It had long been known
that finger and palm prints were distinct and could, in theory, be used to identify someone. Mark Twain
, for example, related a fictional tale in his book Life on the Mississippi
where the survivor of an attack that killed the rest of his family tracked the murderer down using a bloody palm print. The problem was that there wasn't a system of classification to help find
a particular set of prints out of all the rest. Until such a system was developed the only way to use prints was by laborously examining each and every example in the files until a match was found. This obviously wouldn't work.
An Englishman named Sir Edward Henry came up with the Henry Classification System
in 1898. Although adopted by Scotland Yard
and other agencies in the U.K., most everybody else wasn't interested. The reason was that they had spent decades and much money collecting Bertillon files on the bad guys. It would take decades of collecting fingerprint cards before the Henry system could be anywhere near as useful.
This all changed in 1903 when a guy who had been found guilty of theft was sent to Sing Sing Prison
, even though he insisted that he never committed a crime in his life. This guy was named James West (no cracks about The Wild Wild West
, please). Unfortunately there was another prisoner there named Jim West, a ruthless career criminal, who looked exactly like the other one. AND he had the same Bertillon measurements, something that was thought to be impossible. When the fingerprints of both men were taken it was immediately obvious that the prints were seperate and unique.
So much for the Bertillon system. I just wonder what they did with all of those cards.