Sameness/DifferenceBut did the system work? Could it truly identify the same person over time by means of bodily measurement? The ability of the Bertillon system to infallibly identify unique human beings was the source of a number of provocative, early-twentieth-century news stories, including the infamous case of Will West. In 1903, a man by that name entered the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, an institution that relied on Bertillonnage for identifying inmates. Upon measurement, Mr. West’s numbers were matched directly to a card already held by the prison
belonging to a certain William West. It turned out, however, that these were two separate men who bore a striking visual resemblance to one another, and apparently even matched in both name and bodily measurements—only their fingerprints differentiated them. And thus, as the story goes, began the decline of Bertillon’s system in the United States.
This somewhat outrageous story aside, matches were indeed made with some frequency. Numerous prisoners reappeared in the records of the Ohio Penitentiary and Ohio State Reformatory bearing their same prisoner number. Some of these inmates were remeasured and re-photographed, and therefore have two or more Bertillon cards in the system. Indeed, when looking at multiple cards corresponding to one identity, or multiple cards corresponding to similar-looking individuals, it
becomes more apparent that relying on the visual representation of a perceptual original may be insufficient or misleading in representing identity, and that the addition of the bodily measurements—even including those of our fingerprints—truly do facilitate further distinction.