A Paper DatabaseLate in the nineteenth century, the French government functionary, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), developed an ingenious system of criminal identification. In the absence of a reliable individuation technology—at that time, retinal scans, DNA markers, and even driver’s licenses lay well in the future—the state could not reliably establish if a given criminal had been convicted before, and repeat offenders could therefore lie about their status with impunity. Attaching photographs to criminal records, which the French state began doing in the 1870s, did nothing to solve the problem, since it created a new, enormous, logistical obstacle: how could the state organize an archive of a million identity photographs so that, when a suspected criminal appeared before the authorities, one could pull forth a single photograph that showed he or she had in fact been arrested before?
By taking measurements of eleven bony parts of the body and attaching these measurements to the photographic records, Bertillon made it possible to store and retrieve this image data using numbers. Each Bertillon card—one per human being—contained information not only about these physical measurements but also a coded description of the visible attributes of that particular human body. This process, then known as “anthropometry” but now known more familiarly as “Bertillonage,” was essentially the implementation of an information retrieval system that encoded the visual forms of the human body into manipulable alphanumeric symbols so that the police could individuate, and thus identify, a single human body out of thousands, or even millions.
Although initially implemented at the Prefecture of Police in Paris, Bertillonage spread to the United States in the late 1880s, when R.W. McClaughry, then the Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, introduced Bertillon’s Signaletic Instructions: Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification to American prison administrators. The system then spread to a number of prisons in the U.S., including, significantly, Leavenworth, the first Federal Penitentiary.