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About this collection

 

Approximately seven hundred Bertillon Cards were deposited in the City Archives from the New Orleans Police Department. Dating from the late 1890s through 1925, these records give a glimpse into the lives and crimes of individuals arrested in New Orleans at the turn of the century.

 

The majority of crimes represented in this collection are considered petty crimes and include larceny, dangerous and suspicious person, breaking and entering, forgery, pick pocket, con-man, robbery, and prostitution, among others. Perpetrators of murder, racketeering, and other serious crimes are not present in the New Orleans Police Department Bertillon Card Collection or any other photograph collection held in the City Archives.

 

Bertillon Cards are of varying size, some 6” x 6 ½” some 8” x 8,” and include an image of the arrestee, detailed measurements, and physical descriptions of the individual. Individually issued identification numbers appear on both the front and back of the card. Cards are arranged alphabetically by the arrestee’s last name.

 

The Bertillon Card System

 

The Bertillon Card identification system was created by French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon in 1879 as a way of identifying and tracking individuals held in police custody. While serving as a records clerk with the Paris police department, Bertillon became frustrated with the way that photographs of arrestees were being organized. This prompted him to develop his own system of classification and organization, and introduced the science of anthropometry, or the study of measurement of the human body, as a way of identifying individuals in custody.

 

The Bertillon system is based on a combination of physical measurements, photographs and physical descriptions as a way of identifying individuals and repeat offenders. According to the National Library of Medicine, the Bertillon system is based on five primary measurements: (1) head length; (2) head breadth; (3) length of the middle finger; (4) length of the left foot; and (5) length of the “cubit” (the forearm from the elbow to the middle finger). When an individual was taken into custody, an officer would record these measurements along with a physical description, noting complexion, any scars or tattoos, eye color, hair color, height, and other distinguishing characteristics. Information was recorded on a card, known as a Bertillon Card, which served as the arrestee’s official record. The card included a unique identification number and a frontal and profile mugshot photo. Bertillon’s system was adopted across Europe and areas of the United States, and was considered the standard in criminal identification during its time. Alphonse Bertillon was also instrumental in the development of standardized crime scene photography practices.

 

The Bertillon system came to New Orleans in 1897. Throughout the early 1900s the NOPD employed Bertillon operators for criminal investigation and identification. These operators were responsible for recording Bertillon measurements and photographing crime scenes. Fingerprints were incorporated into the Bertillon system in New Orleans in 1918 and can be seen on many of the cards in this collection. While much of the complexities of the Bertillon system have since been abandoned, many of its contributions to criminal identification remain. Officers no longer measure an arrestee’s forearm, forehead, and middle finger, but the recording of physical descriptions and mugshot photos continue as standard practice.

 

New Orleans Mugshot Collection

 

A related collection available for researchers to view is the New Orleans Police Department Mugshot Collection. This collection of approximately sixteen hundred mugshot cards transferred to the City Archives spans the late 1890s-1925. They include a photograph of the arrestee along with a description of the individual and crime recorded on the back of the card. Frequent criminal occupations referenced in this collection include burglar, sneak thief, confidence (con-man), suspicious person, pick pocket, prostitute, and forger. Accompanying the mugshots deposited in the City Archives were several thousand glass plate negatives used to create mugshot photographs. These negatives offer no identifying characteristics other than the individual’s arrest number and are unavailable for viewing due to their fragile condition.

 

 
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