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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Bertillion Method
early way to
track criminals

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
I take great pleasure in learning a new word, a little-known fact or hearing a story I have not heard before. In the book "Texas Gulag" by Gary Brown, the history of Texas prisons, jails and even the early-day chain gangs is presented from the years 1875 to 1925. The book outlined in detail how criminals were identified as they processed through the old systems.

Long before court-appointed attorneys, investigative reporters and court-type TV shows, prisoners could air the grievances of incarceration in only one manner. They could write their memoirs in secret and sneak it out of the prison for friends or relatives to publish.
"Texas Gulag" is based on some of these memoirs, plus the recorded history and records of the early prison systems.

No doubt early Texas prisons, as well as prisons all over the world down through time, were brutal and dangerous. The thinking at the time was, if you are convicted of a crime, you have no rights. Treatment of prisoners will always be argued depending on whether you are a prisoner or a victim of a crime. The old saying of "an eye for an eye" seemed to rule much of the thinking.
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Interestingly, long before fingerprinting, pupil photographing and DNA, prisons used the Bertillion Method to identify prisoners. Research shows in 1883 in Europe, a police clerical officer was recognized for developing the first scientific method of criminal identification used by police.

The method included stripping convicts naked, listing all body scars, tattoos, birthmarks, height and weight while standing on a measuring stand made for the purpose. Age, coloring, hair color, eye color, nationality, occupation, habits and medical condition were also listed by hand on the prison records as well as details of how they committed their particular crime.

This effort became known as the Bertillion Method and the officer in charge at each prison became known as the Bertillion Officer. From 1883 to about 1903, when fingerprinting was refined, the Bertillion Method reigned supreme in criminal identification. Alphonse Bertillion, who developed the method, became the first policeman in Europe to solve a murder by use of fingerprints and went on to become an authority on police forensics.

By the 1920s, fingerprinting and photography were added to the Bertillion Method to track convicts through the system. Bertillion Officers processed virtually every incoming jail prisoner and prison inmate in almost every certified prison. Another interesting duty of the Bertillion Officer was to prepare and print the thousands of "Wanted" posters shown in Post Offices and distributed to law officers around the world. The old joke of "I saw your picture in the Post Office today" was coined by posters created and printed by Bertillion Officers.

Today, the old Bertillion Officer is being replaced by a medical-scientific practitioner. He oversees fingerprinting, photography, takes blood samples for DNA and the latest innovation, photographing the blood vessels on eye retinas. Identification today has reached new levels with the use of technology and digital equipment. Once upon a time, they used the Bertillion Method.


Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" October 7, 2008 Column

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