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WAS FRENCH Criminologist Alphonse Bertillon really superior to Sherlock Holmes? Today in Part 2, French criminologist Bertillon gets involved with one of the world’s major miscarriages of justice. Retrospectively, on the losing side.

L’Affaire Dreyfus. Bertillon lost prestige in the Dreyfus Affaire, a political scandal that embroiled the Third French Republic from 1894 until resolution in 1906.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an Alsatian French artillery officer of Jewish descent, was accused of treason in 1894. It was alleged he had transferred military information to the Germans. Miscarriages of justice and anti-Semitism led to his conviction and imprisonment in French Guiana’s notorious Devil’s Island for nearly five years.

During that time, the real culprit was identified, accused, but promptly acquitted. New evidence in Dreyfus’s favor was suppressed; forged evidence against him was presented.

Alfred Dreyfus, 1859–1935, French military officer of Jewish descent. Ultimately completely exonerated of treason, his two trials polarized France largely on religious grounds.

In 1899, Dreyfus had a new trial in an intensely divided France. Dreyfus supporters, known as Dreyfusards, included actress Sarah Bernhardt, novelist Anatole France, and mathematician Henri Poincaré. Among mostly Catholic Anti-Dreyfusards was Édouard Drumont, founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France and of La Libre Parole, an anti-Semitic newspaper.

Image from Wikipedia.

As noted in Wikipedia, “The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence, but Dreyfus was pardoned and released. In 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army.”

Dreyfus reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in World War I. He died in 1935, age 75, 29 years after his exoneration.

Bertillon’s Role in L’Affaire Dreyfus. In both Dreyfus trials, Bertillon testified for the prosecution as a handwriting expert (evidently not one of his long suits…). As noted in Wikipedia, “… his convoluted and flawed evidence was a significant contributing factor in one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice….”

Wikipedia continues, “Using a complex system of measurements, he attempted to prove that Dreyfus had disguised his handwriting by imitating his own handwriting as if someone else was doing so, so that if anyone thought the bordereau [alleged evidence] was in Dreyfus’s hand, he would be able to say that someone else had forged his writing.”

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “Once you eliminate the impossible….” In particular, the suppositions of Alphonse Bertillon as well as James Mortimer were impossible. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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