Bertillon WorkflowIn the Fall of 2014, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Visual Media Workshop began the process of transcribing hundreds of thousands of handwritten Bertillon measurements from tens of thousands of cards. These cards, a sample of which were chosen for this exhibition, were all originally produced by the Ohio Penitentiary and Ohio State Reformatory, and are now held by the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio.
A crucial characteristic of the cards noted by the team was that the forms themselves are not quite formulaic—that is to say, identical from one to the next. As might be expected, the format of the cards varied somewhat across institutions. During the transcription process, however, “irregular” cards emerged with surprising regularity. In a system that relied on consistency, this deviation seemed important. For example, some of the forms asked for “Stoop” while later forms, illogically interspersed with earlier ones, had switched to placing the more common measurement of “Eng. Ht.” (English Height) in that field. There are at least six different form types which we assume resulted from changes in protocol and technique, but there is scant documentation of the processes that would have produced these variations. Three of these different form types are on display here.
Although there is little data about the specific Bertillon procedures in place at either the Ohio Penitentiary or the Ohio State Reformatory during the years that the system was in use, unexpected marks on the Bertillon cards provide tiny clues about the workflow. Additional measurements, written in bright red, reveal that some of the inmates were remeasured after spending months or years in the prison. These conspicuous marks often adorn the cards of the youngest inmates, reflecting the physical growth of early adulthood. Bertillon himself was well aware of these changes and warned that measuring human beings younger than twenty years of age would invalidate the precision of his system of identification. Nevertheless, it occurred.
A number of cards in the archives of the Ohio History Connection are also dog-eared or torn in the same corner, indicating the manner in which the cards were stored and consulted. A few of the cards have more intentional marks indicative of their use, such as lightly-pencilled measurements, that were later transcribed elsewhere and left forgotten on the back of the card.