Using fingerprints to identify criminals is still an important tool that Police use today, and it was the system chosen by New Zealand Police in the early 20th century. However, for many years, a lot of law enforcers thought that the Bertillon method- also known as anthropometry- would prevail as the ultimate method of criminal identification for Police. Although it was never adopted in New Zealand, it had an important influence on mug shots all over the world.

Alphonse Bertillon started his career as a clerk in the Paris police. Here, appalled by the state of record-keeping and the lack of reliable criminal identification systems, he developed a system he hoped would solve both problems in 1879. Bertillon’s solution was a series of anthropometric measurements of unalterable parts of the body using specially designed callipers, gauges and rulers. Prisoners underwent eleven precise measurements: 
  • height
  • head length
  • head breadth
  • arm span
  • sitting height
  • left mddle finger length
  • left little finger length
  • left foot length
  • right ear length
  • cheek width

These measurements were organized into a complex indexing system using specially trained clerks. When trying to identify someone, these clerks would navigate through the filing system by searching smaller and smaller sub-categories of the measurements, and produce ‘anthropometric cards’ of all the people who matched the measurements. Because the odds of two people having exactly the same 11 measurements were low, process of elimination based on facial description could be applied to the small number of possible people.

At first, Bertillon insisted that these descriptive cards contain only precise, detailed descriptions of criminals using standardized terms which he called a portrait parlé. Bertillon was not impressed by the supposed objectivity of the photographs, and sought to replace the mug shot with a systematised language as the medium of police communication and surveillance.

He soon realized the impossibility of his task, however, and reluctantly decided to start using mug shots to
supplement his system. He insisted that mug shots be taken in a standardised, scientific manner by Police, which suited the preciseness of the rest of his system and reflected a professional, objective Police point of view. Bertillon also believed that ears might someday be used as a unique identification point much like fingerprints, and insisted that a second mug shot be taken in profile as well.

Although Bertillon’s system was more popular than fingerprinting in Europe at the end of the 19th century, it was too complicated and unreliable to be sustained. Eventually it was completely replaced by fingerprinting all over the world. However, Bertillon’s influence on the mug shot gave it the distinctive look we are familiar with today. Mug shots everywhere began to be taken according to his specifications, including New Zealand, who started taking standardised mug shots facing front and in profile in 1904.

Rogue's Gallery

Chelsea Nichols, March 2010. Unless otherwise stated, all images and information found on this website are property of the New Zealand Police Museum.