Simanaitis Says

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IN THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, James Mortimer, Medical Officer for Grimpen, Thorsley, and High Barrow, irks the world’s first consulting detective by recognizing him as “the second highest expert in Europe—”

“ ‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be the first?’ asked Holmes, with some asperity.”

“ ‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon.’ ”

“ ‘Then had you not better consult him?’ ”

James Mortimer, right, meets Holmes and Watson. Image by Sidney Paget from The Strand Magazine, 1901.

Snarky, but understandable, especially if Bertillon is considered all these years later. Here, today and tomorrow in Parts 1 and 2, are tidbits on this French criminologist, his Bertillonage, and this system’s hits and misses. Think of it too as a parable concerning topics of truth and facial recognition.

Alphonse Bertillon, 1853–1914, French police officer and biometric researcher. Image by Jebulon of Bertillon’s own anthropometric data sheet.

Alphonse was the son of statistician Louis-Adolphe Bertillon, who published Demographic Figurée de la France in 1874. Alphonse’s younger brother Jacques was also a noted statistician.

As a lad, Alphonse was something of an underachiever, having been expelled from the Imperial Lycée of Versailles. He served briefly, and without distinction, in the French army. Then his father wangled a job for him as a department copyist at the Prefecture of Police in Paris.

Anthropometrics. Dissatisfied by less than definitive means of identifying criminals, Bertillon devised anthropometrics, a system of measuring physical characteristics. As described in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels (Slipcased Edition) (Vol. 3), edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger, “Under the Bertillon system, officers took two pictures of each suspect, one face-forward and one side view (Bertillon is often credited with popularising both the mug shot and the crime-scene photo), and then carefully noted on an index card the precise dimensions of the suspect’s head, various limbs, and appendages; any defining body characteristics; and in particular, the shape of the ear. Eleven different measurements were taken in all.”

The Bertillon system was adopted throughout France in 1888 and quickly spread to police departments around the world. However, after the turn of the century, fingerprinting took its place, at least in part because of shortcomings revealed in Bertillonage and a loss of respect for the man himself.

Will and William West. Bertillonage took a hit in 1903 when two suspects, Will West and William West, possessed identical measurements—and thus had been identified as the same person. They had different fingerprints, however. And maybe they were twins….

Tomorrow in Part 2, Alphonse Bertillon takes a personal hit, at least in retrospect, in the infamous Dreyfus Affair. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Mark W
    February 2, 2020

    Does “modern biometrics” (I keep reading that term) and facial recognition mean that he was right, just not accurate enough, I wonder?

    • simanaitissays
      February 2, 2020

      Agreed. I’d have a lot more confidence in Bertillonage than in his convoluted handwriting analysis at the Dreyfus trial.

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