So who was the man in Intuitive experiment #20?

The man in this intuitive experiment is Alphonse Bertillon, widely regarded as the father of criminal identification, and inventor of the system called Bertillonage, or anthropometry.

This detailed measurement technique allowed police to successfully classify and identify repeat criminal offenders for the first time in history, and was used in numerous countries for several decades. Bertillon also contributed to other forensic techniques such as ballistics, and was responsible for the invention of the mug shot.

Early Life

Bertillon was born in Paris on April 24th, 1853, the son of the physician and statistician Louis-Adolphe Bertillon. He worked a variety of odd jobs in his youth, and served in the French army for several years beginning in 1875. At loose ends after his discharge from the service, he was placed by his father as an entry-level clerk at the Prefecture of Police in Paris.

Bertillon was an orderly, scientific man with a brilliant and innovative mind, but an introverted and somewhat shy personality. He had a dislike for social niceties, and could come off as abrasive or rude due to his lack of refined social skills. This often put him at odds with his fellow policemen, many of whom he viewed with disdain.

Development of Anthropometry

Alphonse soon became frustrated with the limitations of the criminal records system, which was unorganized, and based on nothing but poor quality photographs and vague descriptions. Many criminals disguised their appearance, and used different names each time they were arrested. This made it difficult to identify repeat offenders, at a time when criminal recidivism was at an all-time high in France.

As a result, Bertillon began to develop a system of criminal identification composed of detailed measurements of the human body, on the theory that no two people had identical proportions. He began measuring convicts during his spare time at work, and worked out how to record and categorize records based on small, medium, and large dimensions, so that they would be easy to locate and compare against new arrestees. He also began taking high-quality mug shots himself (instead of employing commercial photographers), and included a profile view on the theory that the ear is a uniquely identifying feature.

Alphonse initially encountered resistance to his invention, but when Jean Camecasse was hired as police administrator, he decided to give Bertillon’s idea a chance. In December 1882, when Bertillon was able to successfully identify a repeat offender during a trial period for his system, Camecasse decided to adopt it.

In 1883, Alphonse felt confident enough to ask his assistant Amelie Notar to marry him, and they eventually had a son, Francois.

Over the years the Bertillon method gained wide acceptance, and was implemented by most advanced countries as the primary method of criminal identification.

The Dreyfus Affair

After some time, Bertillon began to view himself as an expert on many aspects of forensic science. In that capacity, he served as an expert on handwriting in the trials of accused spy Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 and 1899, despite the fact that he was not really trained in that discipline.

Bertillon suggested that Dreyfus had imitated his own handwriting on a suspect document known as the bordereau, in order to be able to claim that it was a forgery. Although this idea was clearly absurd, it helped lead to the conviction and imprisonment of Dreyfus, who was actually innocent of the crime.

Dreyfus served several years under very harsh conditions on Devil’s Island, and although he was eventually cleared and reinstated to the military, he retired a year later due to recurrent tropical illnesses and fevers. Bertillon continued to believe in Dreyfus’ guilt, and this stubbornness did serious damage to his reputation.

The Rise of Fingerprinting

In the 1890’s, fingerprinting gradually began to be viewed as a superior alternative to anthropometry. Bertillon’s method was certainly effective, but it required a lot of time and manpower to document so many detailed measurements. Fingerprinting was not only more efficient, but more distinctive as well. It was not immediately effective, though, because a system of classification of the different fingerprint traits took several years to develop.

Bertillon’s system of measurements continued to be used in the meantime, but with the publication of Edward Henry’s book Classification and Uses of Fingerprints in 1901, Scotland Yard established the first bureau of fingerprint identification, which marked the beginning of the end for anthropometry.

Alphonse was furious at the replacement of his invention, and to the day of his death he refused to admit that fingerprints were a better method of criminal identification. He died a bitter and disappointed man on February 13, 1914, at the age of 60. This was the same year that even his own country, France, replaced Bertillonage with fingerprints.


Even though Bertillon’s method was eventually replaced, it was a major leap in forensic science and investigation, and many of his innovations (such as the mug shot) are still in use today. He is mentioned in many publications as well, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist.

Despite his disappointment at the outcome of his life, Bertillon’s contributions to science and public safety will not be soon forgotten.

Intuitive Hits

Many readers picked up on Bertillon’s scientific and analytical nature, and on the divide between his good intentions toward humanity in general and his disdain toward specific people.

Several people also correctly noted that Alphonse did not have the warmest or most socially graceful personality, and was viewed as eccentric by many. He was clearly an introverted person with a thinking nature, and this caused him some difficulty in being able to network and convince others of the validity of his ideas. But the ideas were so valid in their own right that they eventually spoke for themselves.

Some readers picked up on similar names like Albert and Alfred, and references to the name Henry might pertain to Edward Henry, whose book on fingerprinting spelled the beginning of the end for Bertillonage.

Another reader mentioned the jungle and high fevers, which is interesting because Dreyfus suffered from these afflictions, partly as a result of Bertillon’s testimony against him.

All in all, this was an excellent experiment, with many solid intuitive hits. You are all making wonderful progress by practicing here!

Another mystery person will be posted soon, so please stay tuned for more.

Want To Do Another Intuitive Experiment?

Move on to experiment #21!

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