Alphonse Bertillon Invents the Mugshot Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Alphonse Bertillon Invents the Mugshot

0 Conversations

Rogues' Gallery,  New York City Police, 1909
The progress of Mr. Lincoln having attracted thousands of respectable friends and followers, especially in the large cities, it is by no means an unnatural consequence that large gangs of pickpockets are found to mingle in the throng...
As a specimen of their villainy we may state that a citizen of Germantown, or its vicinity, was robbed of three hundred dollars in gold...
Some of the most noted pickpockets following the wake of the President are known to the police, in consequence of their daguerreotype likenesses being affixed to the walls of the 'Rogues' Gallery' at the Central station. A capital institution, that Rogues' Gallery.

–  Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette, 22 February, 1861

When Abraham Lincoln was on his way across the country to his inauguration, a gang of pickpockets tagged along behind the presidential train. At every stop, it was reported, they made a rich haul by robbing distracted citizens. They didn't just pick a pocket or two. Thieves like this were a plague in the mid-19th Century.

That 'Rogues' Gallery' was a really good idea. Wonder who thought of it?

Rogues in Galleries

Rogues from New York City's famous detective Thomas J Byrnes' Rogues Gallery. They look kind of smug.

Photography's birthdate is usually given as 1839, the year Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype to the world. In the 1850s, police around the world were noticing that it was useful to have a likeness of the criminals they were looking for. It helped to show them to potential witnesses, for example. By 1859, the New York City Police Department had collected 450 ambrotypes of crooks. Ambrotypes were just as clear as daguerreotypes, but faster and less expensive to make. (After all, they weren't needed for keepsakes.) The NYPD put together a Rogues' Gallery. Citizens felt they were on their way to better police protection.

Photography, though still messy and technically tricky, had lots of eager experimenters. It wasn't hard to recruit police photographers. The real problem was getting the criminals to cooperate. Obviously, they didn't want their pictures taken. They'd fidget and make faces to throw the visual record off.

The one thing they didn't do was preen for the camera, a tendency people had already noticed in people 'having their pictures made'. As one observer of the New York Rogues' Gallery noted, there was 'the absence of the self-satisfied smirk and ghastly attempts to look handsome' that all too often marked sessions at the more fashionable photographers1.

In Berlin, the photographers got clever: they hid the cameras. The criminals were photographed without their knowledge. (There were fewer civil rights lawyers in those days.)

Alphonse Bertillon Takes Things in Hand

Criminal photo by Alphonse Bertillon, showing his technique of full-face and right profile record.

All this enthusiastic police photography created another problem: volume. The French police soon had an overwhelming 100,000 photos in their collection. The Pinkerton Detective Agency in the US had the largest collection in the world. They used the images to produce the 'wanted' posters that became a staple of Wild West fiction.

Besides worrying the public that there were, let's face it, far too many crooks around, huge collections were hopelessly unwieldy. The suggestion, 'Come down to headquarters and look at a few mugbooks' was not enticing. Obviously, a system was called for.

Much-needed organization was provided by France's Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914). Bertillon standardised the poses – full-face and right profile. He specified the ratio of reduction: the photo had to be one-seventh size. A specially-designed chair helped keep the poser in place. Police departments in the US loved the Bertillon system and adopted it.

Bertillon took lots of what we now call mugshots. You can see some in his classic work, La photographie judiciaire. If you read French, you can find out more about his method, too. Unfortunately not included is the mugshot he took of his two-year-old nephew as a family joke. The kid was caught nibbling 'all the pears in the basket'. A more adorable criminal never existed.

1Quoted in Image: Journal of Photography of the George Eastman House, October 1952, Vol 1, No 7.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more