(Roughly) Daily

“Why do people respect the package rather than the man?”*…

 

Alphonse Bertillon’s Tableau synoptic des traits physionomiques was essentially a cheat sheet to help police clerks put into practice his pioneering method for classifying and archiving the images (and accompanying details) of repeat offenders, a system known as bertillonage. Beginning his career as a records clerk in the Parisian police department, Bertillon, the child of two statisticians and endowed with an obsessive love of order, soon became exasperated with the chaos of the files on offenders. The problem was particularly acute when it came to identifying offenders as repeat offenders (recidivists), given that the person in question could simply provide a false name. Before Bertillon, to find the files of the accused (or if there was even one already existing) the police would have to sift through the notorious “rogues’ gallery”, a disorganised mess of photographic portraits of past offenders, and hope for a visual match.

Bertillon’s solution was to develop a rigorous system of classification, or “signalment”, to help organise these photographs. This involved — in addition to taking simple measurements of the head, body, and extremities — breaking down the criminal’s physiognomy into discrete and classifiable elements (the curl of ear, fold of brow, inclination of chin). What in other contexts might be the much loved (or reviled) expressions of a personality, in Bertillon’s world become simply units of information. Taking a note of these, as well as individual markings such as scars or tattoos, and personality characteristics, Bertillon could produce a composite formula that could then be tied to a photographic portrait and name, all displayed on a single card, a portrait parlé (a speaking portrait). These cards were then systematically archived and cross-indexed, to make the task of linking a reticent offender with a possible criminal past, infinitely easier. Put into practise in 1883, the system was hugely effective and was soon adopted by police forces across the channel, before spreading throughout Europe and the Americas, (though without Bertillon’s obsessive eye overseeing proceedings, its foreign adventures were not a complete success).

Key to the whole endeavour, of course, was the new exactitude of representation afforded by photography, though this was still an exactitude limited to a particular moment. Over time faces change, a fact which rendered Bertillon’s system less than perfect. With the call for an identifier more fixed than the measurements of an inevitably changing face, and a system less complex, bertillonage was eventually, by the beginning of the 20th century, supplanted by the new kid on the forensic science block — fingerprinting

An early ancestor of today’s Age of Surveillance: “Alphonse Bertillon’s Synoptic Table of Physiognomic Traits (ca. 1909).”

* Michel de Montaigne

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As we try on a Privacy Visor, we might recall that it was on this date in 1814 that London suffered “The Great Beer Flood Disaster” when the metal bands on an immense vat at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery snapped, releasing a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels of Porter (571 tons– more than 1 million pints), which swept away the brewery walls, flooded nearby basements, and collapsed several adjacent tenements. While there were reports of over twenty fatalities resulting from poisoning by the porter fumes or alcohol coma, it appears that the death toll was 8, and those from the destruction caused by the huge wave of beer in the structures surrounding the brewery.

(The U.S. had its own vat mishap in 1919, when a Boston molasses plant suffered similarly-burst bands, creating a heavy wave of molasses moving at a speed of an estimated 35 mph; it killed 21 and injured 150.)

Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery

source

 

Written by LW

October 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

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