Fingerprints 102: Innovator Bertillon Only Partial-ly Accurate

(Don’t forget to read Fingerprints 101 for more about their initial discovery, Anthropometry, and the early applications in solving crime.)

Alphonse Bertillon/ Archives Photographiques, J.P. Ziolo
Are these the reportedly moonstruck eyes of a necromancer?: Alphonse Bertillon/ Archives Photographiques, J.P. Ziolo

In the late nineteenth century, criminal identification was largely done by using Rogues’ Galleries, photographs of known criminals held in massive books that required hours to search.

Enter Alphonse Bertillon, poster boy for high school drop-outs, obsessive-compulsives, and benficiaies of nepotism. Uninterested as a student, he quit school twice before his father, Louis-Aldophe Bertillon, a noted statistician and demographer at a Paris school of anthropology, used his influence to help sonny become a clerk for the local prefecture of police in 1879.

Early Crime Scene Photography by Alphonse Bertillon
A little to the left? Oh, never mind: Early Crime Scene Photography by Alphonse Bertillon
Though markedly eccentric, between the young man’s interest in physical measurements of criminals (later named Anthropometry or proudly Bertillonage in native France) and his excessive concern with order, he developed a system of filing these measurements as well as the photographs of criminals. His cataloguing system greatly diminshed the time searching through files. He  created techniques including forensic document examinations, the taking of molds for preserving footprints, ballistics, and the use of force measurements for breaking-and-entering cases.  Perhaps Alphonse’s largest legacy to law enforcement was his systematic approach to gathering evidence by initiating the use of mug shots and of documentary photography at crime scenes. 

Alfred Dreyfus’ Prison on Devil’s Island/ Martin Argles for the Guardian
Alfred Dreyfus’ Prison on Devil’s Island/ Martin Argles for the Guardian
However we must balance this against his willingness to perjure himself, first in 1894 and again in 1899. Let us digress to when Bertillon testified against Alfred Dreyfus during the infamous miscarriage of justice called the Dreyfus Affair.  Testifying as a forensic handwriting expert (he wasn’t), Bertillon used his authority to validate documents that were forged by the French Army. He testified that the Jewish Dreyfus wrote incriminating letters, and Dreyfus was condemned to life in prison on Devil’s Island, where he lived within a small stone enclosure, frequently shackled and fed rancid pork, his jailers forbidden even to speak to him. (This Guardian review has more on “the most important cause célèbre in French history”.)

Emile Zola
Emile Zola accuses you!
In another however, however, we may be happy that Bertillon’s perfidy enabled novelist and journalist Emile Zola to establish the power of the pen in his editorial on the front page of the Paris daily paper L’Aurore on January 13th 1898. “J’accuse” pointed fingers at the French government and army for executing a coverup. The article eventually led to Dreyfus’s exoneration in 1906, demonstrating the power of the intellectual media to shape public opinion. (It also probably led to Zola’s murder from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1902.)

The source of Zola’s information, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, initiated the tradition of the whistleblower, for which Picquart suffered the punishment of being posted away from France in Africa. Eventually, he was also imprisoned for 60 days. Yet, his heroism is remembered today. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Modern technology has added value to the fingerprint file. Before 1977, humans performed fingerprint searches exclusively. Matching was a slow and arduous task. After that date, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) was established. Fingerprints could be scanned into the computer, and the database searched rapidly. Human review confirmed the match-ups. AFIS uses points of matching, and does not use the whole print as a comparison.

Partial, Smudged Print/ New ScientistThis is important, because most fingerprints found at the scene of a crime are partial prints. It is rare to get a full and completely un-smudged print. By matching points on the loops and whirls and arches, the computer narrows down the possible offenders quickly. The final resolution of identification rests upon an expertly-trained law enforcement official. They conclude whether or not the number of points makes the probability of a true match high enough. 

But let us return to Emile Zola and the power of the press. ABC News recently quoted Rob Epstein, a Philadelphia public defender: “Fingerprint analysis is a 19th century law enforcement technique that has never been subjected to 20th century scientific standards.” (Doesn’t that guy know it’s the 21st century? Who can believe a guy who’s a century behind the times?)

Seriously, though, what’s the controversy? Even oddball Bertillon would agree that a person’s fingerprints are uniquely his or hers. But partial fingerprints are a different animal than complete prints, as Robert Epstein hopes to make known. No one, not even Sherlock Holmes, has yet proven they can be reliably matched to the exclusion of other suspects in all cases. If they are the lynchpin (excuse the gallows humor) of a case, are they absolutely definitive? The answer is, well, not really.

For instance, take the case of Ricky Jackson, convicted of his lover’s murder and sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania in 1998, based on the identification of partial prints in the blood of the victim and on a box fan used as the murder weapon.  Subsequently, privately-contracted, retired FBI fingerprint examiners George Wynn and Vernon McCloud determined that the damning prints were hadn’t been correctly matched. Like Dreyfus, Jackson was eventually released, but not until he’d served years in prison.

It seems that the training and qualification standards for fingerprint examiners/experts vary between law enforcement agencies. Simply put, there is no standard from state to state or police department to police department. Upsetting isn’t it?

In 1995, a review of the ability of fingerprint examiners to identify correctly the owner of a print showed that they were correct 80% of the time. That grades as a good, solid B. It also means that they were wrong 20% of the time. When considering the possibility of false imprisonment or the death penalty, I’d change that grade to an F. (Read more on the shortcomings from New Scientist and CBS News’ 60 Minutes.)

Is Bertillon having the last laugh? Should we go back to Anthropometry and start over? As 21st century writers, we can at least imagine life in the glorious future when evidence is definitive all the time.

Dr. Lewis Preschel aka TheMadMutt. Wouldn’t you be Mad, too?


  1. sara

    great post!!

  2. Joe Pueschel

    I always found Emile Zola so interesting and it’s great to understand his role in comparison to the topics discussed!! Thank you for sharing!

  3. jill preschel

    The Dreyfus Affair is an interesting one that not many people remember or know about!!

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