What Did the World’s First Mug Shots Look Like?


The mug shot has, by now, become so universal that it’s hard to imagine a criminal justice system without it. But in the mid-19th century, when photography was still a new medium, there was no standardized record-keeping system in place to help police departments identify repeat criminals. Random daguerreotypes and loose photographs laying around unfiled weren’t cutting it — which is why in the early 1880s, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the Paris police force to a standardized method that documented mug shots, body measurements, and in some cases, early finger prints.

That anthropometric Bertillon System, which was a recent subject of the podcast “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” would eventually be replaced with finger printing in the 1910s. But until then, its strange measurements — the width of the head, length of right ear, length of the cubit, etc. — represented huge advances in forensic science and criminal identification in both Europe and the States. Below the jump, browse through our gallery of Bertillon Card mug shots of 19th- and 20th-century suspicious persons, and make your own with the blanks we’ve included at the end.

[Images via DNA Learning Center]

Two Bertillon cards depicting Alphonse Bertillon

[Images via New Orleans Public Library]

Hugh M. Howell, described as “dangerous and suspicious” on his New Orleans Police Department Bertillon Card on January, 31, 1913

[Image via NY State Division of Criminal Justice Services]

The very first Bertillon Card filed by the New York State Bertillon Bureau

[Images via National Postal Museum]

1909 Bertillon Card for Salvtore Arrigo, Ohio leader of “The Black Hand,” an extortionist group that operated via mail

Bertillon Card for Charles Clark, arrested for burglary in New York

[Images via New Orleans Public Library]

Donald H. Lyman was arrested by the New Orleans Police Department for “receiving money under false pretense” on November 8, 1918. You can tell that this card is one of the later ones because of its comprehensive fingerprinting and lack of detailed Bertillon measurements recorded on earlier cards.

[Images via National Library of Medicine]

Bertillon Card for Thomas Conway, arrested for larceny in Boston

[Image via US National Archives on Flickr]

A 1916 Bertillon Card

[Images via National Archives]

1919 Atlanta Bertillon Card for Florentino Jaso

[Image via New Orleans Public Library]

1915 New Orleans Bertillon Card

Now it’s time to make your own. No 19th-century-style crime necessary. Just take your Bertillon measurements, and fill out your own prisoner’s card.

Bertillon’s 1893 measuring instructional