Monsieur Bertillon, Captain Evans, & How to ID a Body in the Early 1900's

Monsieur Bertillon

Monsieur Alphonse Bertillon, father of the mug shot, posing as test subject for his new identification system.

Part 2 can be read here if you missed it...

While homicide detectives investigated the leads on the Colt .45, the John Robinson Circus, and the Chicago Chauffeurs union, another faction of Chicago's finest was called in to see if they could shed any light on whom the Ragged Stranger might be. The Police Identification Bureau photographed the dead man and took his fingerprints for comparison against the Chicago Police files which were some of the most extensive in the world at the time.

While photographing criminals began soon after photography became mainstream in the 1840’s, it wasn’t until nearly 1880 that any type of system was in place to catalog or expand on just a "rogue’s gallery" of photographs; early rogue's galleries were literally an area in a police station or municipal building where a public gallery was set up to display the photographs of local rogues or criminals.

Parisian Alphonse Bertillon came up with a system that revolutionized criminal identifications by combining photographs with detailed measurements. Eleven measurements of height, head length, head breadth, length of the left middle finger, trunk (while seated a measurement was taken from the top of the head down to the chair seated on), the right cheek, length of the left little finger, the length of the left foot, the right ear, the length of the left cubit (the forearm from the elbow to the extremity of the middle finger), and outer arms (essentially your wingspan with your arms outstretched to your sides) were all measured and recorded and comprised the base line for identification. Eye color, complexion, hair color, build, scars, tattoos, and distinguishing features were all recorded as well to complete the Bertillon identification chart. Bertillon estimated that only 1 in 4,000,000 people would share the same measurements and while not nearly as definitive as DNA and fingerprints would become, it was a great deal better than anything before it. Widespread use of the Bertillon system led to him being credited as the inventor of the mug shot.

Notes of Reporting Anthropometry- Bertillon's systme was based on the field of anthropometry which is the field of study of precise body measurements.

Notes of Reporting Anthropometry- Bertillon's system was based on anthropometry which is the field of study of precise body measurements.

Bertillon's system was taught in Paris to classes of police officers from all over the world and those who had taken such courses were often deemed experts on identification upon their return home. Such a scenario played out in Chicago as it was the first city in America to adopt the Bertillon System and Captain Michael P. Evans of the Chicago Police was viewed as an expert in the field. The front page of the April 24, 1898 The Chicago Sunday Tribune (shown below) shows just how rudimentary identifications still were even for experts familiar with the Bertillon System. While the use of artwork rather than printed photos lends a comedic feel to the story, it's no less shocking that four men's photographs could be thought to be representative of an entire nations criminal population (as comical as it may seem to generalize an entire population of people by one photograph, the science of psychiatry was not much further ahead as later blog posts will delve into the sanity tests administered by alienists as psychiatrists were known back then).




american-type-of-criminal french-type-of-criminal italian-type-of-criminal german-type-of-criminal

While the Bertillon System was a huge upgrade over anything before it, it did have several deficiencies. For one, it was a very time consuming affair under the best of circumstances to take the multiple measurements required and if an officer of the law did not have a willing subject to sit through all these measurements, the situation could easily deteriorate. Beyond the time and manpower needed to fill out Bertillon's forms, they also took up a ton of space.

The Bertillon system remained the gold-standard for identification until fingerprint identifications became the accepted practice. The young science was first introduced to America at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 by Sir Edward Henry, a police commissioner from Scotland Yard.  Henry showed how fingerprints were as individual as a photograph or signature and capturing them on large sheets proved to greatly reduce the amount of storage required by the Bertillon system which required pigeonholed files that contained measurements charts as well as multiple photographs.  Not only was there a great reduction in storage, the time savings of finger printing a criminal compared to taking detailed measurements of various body parts proved valuable for the police.

An attendee of that fair was Emmtt Evans, son of Chicago Police Captain Michael Evans, and upon his return home the young man extolled to his father the virtues of the new process. While fingerprinting goes back to the days of Hammurabi over 3,700 years ago, Capt. Evans was the first to introduce the art of fingerprint analysis to the Chicago Police Department in 1905 in his office of the Police Identification Bureau. Capt. Evans would later testify as an expert witness in the murder trial of Thomas Jennings in 1910 where a guilty verdict and subsequent conviction led to an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Jennings which was the first U.S. trial to address, and accept, the admissibility of expert testimony as it relates to fingerprint analysis.


Evans fingerprinting technique and subsequent testimony were crucial to a guilty verdict in the first trial were the burgeoning science was used.

Evans later reduced the large fingerprint sheets down to index cards and his files would become legendary in the Chicago Police. He would keep his files, and his enthusiasm for identification, in the family as his son Emmett would later inherit his father’s job, and files, as head of the bureau and son Edward was one of the first superintendents of the National Bureau of Criminal Identification.

Despite being one of the godfathers of fingerprint science, the prints he took from the Ragged Stranger did not correspond with any on record in his files.  He would go on to send them to Washington D.C. in the hopes that the Ragged Stranger had served in the army and his prints would be on file.  A copy of his fingerprints also was sent to the FBI in the event he had a criminal history that the feds would be aware of.  At this time there were no national databases or any way to effectively share information among the 48 states. All the requests he sent out would come back with the same conclusion, the Ragged Stranger's fingerprints were not on file anywhere.

Once again, the police were flummoxed. Who is the Ragged Stranger?


Part 4 coming Monday May 28- The Colt .45 and Abercrombie & Fitch


This blog aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct fallacies where they have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.


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  • Excellent writing.....please continue

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