Although the combination of mug shots and fingerprinting proved to be the most successful combination for criminal identification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other less successful methods were explored as well. For example: 

  • In the first decade of the 1900’s, a Parisian doctor suggested branding criminals by using a harmless injection of paraffin wax to create a small bump. He suggested the placement could be encoded according to the seriousness of the crime, such as upper/middle/lower right shoulder according to varying degree of dangerousness. 

  • The radiographic laboratory in the Saltpetriere Hospital in France collected 8000 negatives of fractures and other internal anomaly shortly after the invention of X-ray technology in 1895, with the thought that they could be used for criminal identification. Before the dangers of radiation associated with X-rays were fully known, it was suggested that all arrested suspects have an X-ray taken, much like a mug shot.

  • In 1827 the British Registry of Distinctive Marks was established. This system attempted to organise criminal records according to the pecularities of their body, such as tattoos, freckles, scars, birthmarks, or missing appendages. The filing system was divided up according to the part of body the distinctive mark was located (head and face; throat and neck; chest, belly and groin; back and loins; hands and fingers; thighs and legs; and feet and ankles), and then subdivided by the type of mark. The distinctive marks were then further divided by descriptions of the mark, such as the type of tattoo or
    size of the blemish. That way, if an arrested suspect gave a false name, the police could reduce the number of possible identities by only looking at files of people with similar distinctive marks. However, the flaws in this system lay in the fact that many people have more than one distinctive mark, and that there is an infinite number of ways to sub-categorise descriptions of marks, tattoos, and disfigurements. Althought distinctive marks remained part of the general description in criminal police records, the idea of the British Registry of Distinctive Marks was eventually abandoned. 

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