Beyond mug shots: Other methods of criminal identification in the 19th century

Although mug shots were helpful in aiding police with criminal identification, alone they could not definitely prove someone’s identity. At the end of the 19th century, two important systems of identification emerged which law enforcers hoped would be capable of proving identity beyond a shadow of a doubt: fingerprinting and the Bertillon method. These techniques not only had a profound effect on the future of criminal identification, but also influenced the history of mug shots.

Of course these were not the only methods of criminal identification that were explored during the 19th century. Click on the links below to explore some of the techniques beyond mug shots that were experimented with:

Photo of Bertillon measurements

Alphonse Bertillon devised a system of criminal identification based on precise measurements of the human body using specially designed calipers.

Bertillon Method

Using fingerprints to identify criminals is still an important tool that police use today, and it was the system chosen by New Zealand Police in the early 20th century. However, for many years, a lot of law enforcers thought that the Bertillon method - also known as anthropometry - would prevail as the ultimate method of criminal identification for police. Although it was never adopted in New Zealand, it had an important influence on mug shots all over the world.

Alphonse Bertillon started his career as a clerk in the Paris Police. Here, appalled by the state of record-keeping and the lack of reliable criminal identification systems, he developed a system he hoped would solve both problems in 1879. Bertillon’s solution was a series of anthropometric measurements of unalterable parts of the body using specially designed callipers, gauges and rulers. Prisoners underwent eleven precise measurements:

  • height
  • head length
  • head breadth
  • arm span
  • sitting height
  • left middle finger length
  • left little finger length
  • left foot length
  • right ear length
  • cheek width

These measurements were organised into a complex indexing system using specially trained clerks. When trying to identify someone, these clerks would navigate through the filing system by searching smaller and smaller sub-categories of the measurements, and produce ‘anthropometric cards’ of all the people who matched the measurements. Because the odds of two people having exactly the same eleven measurements were low, process of elimination based on facial description could be applied to the small number of possible people.

Photo of Bertillon portrait parle

Bertillon Measurements and portrait parle (written description) of a prison from the New York Police Department, 19 January 1903.

At first, Bertillon insisted that these descriptive cards contain only precise, detailed descriptions of criminals using standardised terms which he called a portrait parlé. Bertillon was not impressed by the supposed objectivity of the photographs, and sought to replace the mug shot with a systematised language as the medium of police communication and surveillance.

He soon realised the impossibility of his task, however, and reluctantly decided to start using mug shots to supplement his system. He insisted that mug shots be taken in a standardised, scientific manner by police, which suited the preciseness of the rest of his system and reflected a professional, objective police point of view. Bertillon also believed that ears might someday be used as a unique identification point much like fingerprints, and insisted that a second mug shot be taken in profile as well.

Although Bertillon’s system was more popular than fingerprinting in Europe at the end of the 19th century, it was too complicated and unreliable to be sustained. Eventually it was completely replaced by fingerprinting all over the world. However, Bertillon’s influence on the mug shot gave it the distinctive look we are familiar with today. Mug shots everywhere began to be taken according to his specifications, including New Zealand, who started taking standardised mug shots facing front and in profile in 1904.

  • Photo of Alphonse Bertillon at World Fair with Mug Shot

    Alphonse Bertillon demonstrating his mug shot and anthropometric measurement technique for criminal identification at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, USA.


  • Ernest Wilson alias Brightman

    Ernest Wilson, alias Brightman (b. 1881, Norfolk Island). Charged with bigamy and sentenced to 3 years in gaol on 20 November 1905 (Auckland). Photograph taken on 12 March 1908. Bertillon’s standardisation of mug shots at the end of the 19th century influenced the modern look of mug shots with a second image in profile.


Photo of Rajyadhar Konai’s hand print on contract

Rajyadhar Konai’s hand print, from the back of a contract with W J Herschel for 2000 maunds (165, 200 lbs) of road metalling. Dated 28 July 1858.

Fingerprints have been used as signature since ancient times. In ancient Babylon, for example, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions, and in ancient China thumb prints have been found on clay seals. It is unknown, however, whether or not these civilisations recognised the unique characteristics of fingerprints.

Their use as a modern system of identification developed in the British colony in India, by Sir William Herschel, a Chief Magistrate in Jungipoor. Playing on local superstitions that personal contact with a document made it more binding, he began to require palm or fingerprints on business contracts made with local Indian workers.

As Herschel’s system grew, he realized that a person’s fingerprints did not change with age. He felt that fingerprints would be a good solution to the problems with identification.

A decade later, Dr Henry Faulds took up the serious study of the individual characteristics of fingerprints, and devised the first formal system of classifying them.

Photo of Sir William Herschel fingerprints

Sir William Herschel’s fingerprints, taken over a 50 year period.

His original nine types of fingerprints were reduced and simplified by Sir Francis Galton a short time later into the three major patterns used for classification today: loops, arches, and whorls.

Galton assigned a letter to each type of fingerprint pattern: A for arch, W for whorl, I for inner loops that opened towards the thumb and O for outer loops which opened toward the pinky finger. Galton would assign a letter to each finger based on the fingerprint pattern, so a ten letter code was created for each person. (Take a look at your fingertips - what would your code be?) These ten-letter patterns could be arranged and searched alphabetically. That way, even if someone gave a false name, police would only have to search through mug shots corresponding to that fingerprint combination.

Photo of Galton Photographed By Bertillon

Sir Francis Galton, photographed at Alphonse Bertillon’s laboratory in 1893. From “The Life, Letters, and Labors of Francis Galton”, by Karl Pearson. Vol 2, Ch. 13, Plate Lll, 382-3.

In 1903, Walter Dinnie, former Chief Inspector of the London Metropolitan Police, was named Police Commissioner of New Zealand. He had extensive training in colonial policing and forensic technology, and was responsible for the development of fingerprinting in New Zealand. He sought to professionalise and modernise the New Zealand Police Force, and insisted that fingerprints of every arrested criminal be taken along with their criminal history, and forwarded to the Fingerprint Bureau in Wellington. By 30 June 1903, the Bureau had already received 498 sets.

Supplemented with mug shots and detailed identification records, in just a few of years New Zealand Police became internationally renowned for its impressively successful criminal identification system. In fact, in May 1905, New Zealand boasted the first ever criminal conviction based on fingerprint evidence alone: John Clancy was convicted of breaking and entering in Wellington on the strength of a single finger impression left on a broken piece of window glass.
This fingerprint matched his fingerprints, which had been recorded at the Auckland gaol a few months earlier.

Other Methods

Although the combination of mug shots and fingerprinting proved to be the most successful combination for criminal identification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other less successful methods were explored as well.

For example:

  • In the first decade of the 1900s, a Parisian doctor suggested branding criminals by using a harmless injection of paraffin wax to create a small bump. He suggested the placement could be encoded according to the seriousness of the crime, such as upper/middle/lower right shoulder according to varying degree of dangerousness.
  • The radiographic laboratory in the Saltpetriere Hospital in France collected 8000 negatives of fractures and other internal anomaly shortly after the invention of X-ray technology in 1895, with the thought that they could be used for criminal identification. Before the dangers of radiation associated with X-rays were fully known, it was suggested that all arrested suspects have an X-ray taken, much like a mug shot.
  • In 1827 the British Registry of Distinctive Marks was established. This system attempted to organise criminal records according to the pecularities of their body, such as tattoos, freckles, scars, birthmarks, or missing appendages. The filing system was divided up according to the part of body the distinctive mark was located (head and face; throat and neck; chest, belly and groin; back and loins; hands and fingers; thighs and legs; and feet and ankles), and then subdivided by the type of mark. The distinctive marks were then further divided by descriptions of the mark, such as the type of tattoo or size of the blemish. That way, if an arrested suspect gave a false name, the police could reduce the number of possible identities by only looking at files of people with similar distinctive marks. However, the flaws in this system lay in the fact that many people have more than one distinctive mark, and that there is an infinite number of ways to sub-categorise descriptions of marks, tattoos, and disfigurements. Although distinctive marks remained part of the general description in criminal police records, the idea of the British Registry of Distinctive Marks was eventually abandoned. 
  • Photo of Vincent Basin

    Vincent Basin (b. 18??). Crime unknown (Dunedin). Described as having a disfigured right thumb. Photo taken on 16 January 1886.


  • Photo of Christian Vecht, alias Chalig

    Christian Vecht, alias Chalig (b. 1843, Denmark). Charged with larceny and sentenced to four months on 11 February 1887 (Dunedin). Described as having a large scar on his left cheek. Photo taken on 17 February 1887.

  • Photo of John Gordon Douglass McArthur

    John Gordon Douglass McArthur (b. 1860, America). Charged with obscene language and sentenced to 3 months on 4 June 1889 (Invercargill). Described as having right eye larger than left. Photo taken on 15 June 1889.

Although these men were never part of the official Registry of Distinctive Marks, each display a sort of distinctive mark which the Registry tried to document.