Is "Bertillonage" Still Used To ID Criminals?

Back in the 19th entury, before the use of fingerprints to identify people, the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon developed a system of identification. He reasoned that there would be a certain probability of physical characteristics from different people matching…if you made several measurements, the chance of an erroneous match would be close to zero. I believe that he settled on 7 measuremenst (skull circumference, length of forfingers, tibia length, etc). He calculated that the odds of a match would be less that one in 10 million. Is this system still in use? Could it be used to ID terrorists?

Nope, it’s not in use because of two prisoners who were found to have similar measurements. I suppose one could argue that the face recognition software uses a similar method to analyze faces, but that’s kind of stretching it.

Too time consuming and expensive compared to fingerprints and/or photos.

Not to mention that terrorists resist getting measured for the database.

From what little I’ve read about it the purpose of the Bertillon system wasn’t to identify the perpetrator of a crime but to prevent apprehended criminals getting themselves processed under an assumed name and

  • (if they had prior convictions) get a lighter sentence as a first offender.
  • (if they had escaped prison) avoid serving the rest of the original term

As fingerprinting can serve this purpose at least equally well and has the additional use of identifying someone from crime scene evidence the Bertillon measurements would probably have been abandoned in favour of fingerprinting.

Assuming an earth population of 5 billion rough calculation tells us that something like 500 people on earth would then be matches for any set of measurements. Probably not good enough to identify terrorists by itself.

(Of course not all of those 5 billion are adults…I assume the system doesn’t work the same for children).

Perhaps I’m thinking of something else – but I recall reading something to the effect that Bertillon’s system was intended not only to identify individual criminals, fingerprint-style, but to identify criminal types, persons whose physiognomy showed they were predisposed to criminal behavior. This was, of course, the 19th Century, the age of phrenology, etc.

That’s incorrect. It was about identifying individuals, in that it took into account the location of scars, as you can read in this description.

I must have been thinking of Cesare Lombroso, not Alphonse Bertillon. See

See also the Wikipedia articles on physiognomy, and phrenology,