33 Chilling Photos Of Vintage Crime Scenes At The Birth Of Forensic Photography

Published July 14, 2021
Updated July 15, 2021

In 1903, Parisian police clerk Alphonse Bertillon became the first to photo document a crime scene. Years earlier, he streamlined the use of mugshots, effectively revolutionizing detective work all with a camera.

Murder Victim In Alphonse Bertillon Crime Scene Photo
Alphonse Bertillon Mug Shot Of Young Person
Grisly Alphonse Bertillon Crime Scene Photo
Alphonse Bertillon Crime Scene Photo In Hallway
33 Chilling Photos Of Vintage Crime Scenes At The Birth Of Forensic Photography
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Before the advent of fingerprinting or criminal profiling, police departments around the world saw countless criminals slip through the cracks. That is until a French police officer named Alphonse Bertillon found an innovative solution.

Bertillon proffered an eponymous system in which arresting officers measured and described 11 unique physical traits of each suspect, which was to then be filed away with a photograph of their faces.

The profile was so successful at keeping tabs on repeat offenders that the Paris Police adopted it as common practice in 1883. And by 1893, Alphonse Bertillon had standardized the use of what's now known as the modern mugshot across Europe.

But his innovations didn't end there. Bertillon was also the first to document crime scenes through photography. He would frame victims alongside their surrounding objects to properly record scale and dimension before investigators tainted the site.

Take a look at how exactly Alphonse Bertillon revolutionized detective work through these 33 vintage mugshots and crime scene photos.

The Invention Of The Bertillon System

Born on April 22, 1853, in Paris, France, Alphonse Bertillon was raised to appreciate data. Though he was the son of a statistician, Bertillon failed out of school, much to his father's disappointment.

Searching for a career path, Bertillon joined the army as a bugle player at age 26, but his father found him more respectable employment as an entry-level clerk at the Paris Police Station.

Bertillon was tasked with painstakingly rifling through the cellar and copying prisoner admission forms by hand. During this work, he noted stark variations in witness descriptions, which made it difficult for officers to identify and arrest criminals.

Additionally, he realized that even though the Paris police had been using photography to keep track of criminals, the images were all captured in inconsistent lighting and were organized only by name and address. Bertillon realized this had allowed repeat offenders to be misidentified as first-time crooks for years.

Alphonse Bertillon Mug Shot

Wikimedia CommonsAlphonse Bertillon showcasing his mugshot method on himself.

Alphonse Bertillon thus devised a method to more accurately identify and organize suspects known as forensic anthropometry.

He knew that every human was unique, but this was before the advent of DNA tests, however, so the most effective way to identify someone was through physical measurements. Thus, Bertillon took careful note of 11 unique traits on each criminal.

Soon enough, Paris police were able to sort through their collections of known criminals with ease. From skin tone and hair color to finger length and head circumference, forensic anthropometry was a far better system than rifling through stacks of photos — although these had to be refined, as well.

Alphonse Bertillon did so by standardizing the mugshot and taking photographs of the full face and profile view in uniform lighting. By 1883, Bertillon had taken 7,336 measurements and identified 49 repeat offenders. By 1884, his system caught 241 repeat offenders.

The Invention Of Crime Scene Photography

While efficiently codifying criminal records to the great advantage of the law, Bertillon realized that studying the crime scenes themselves could prove worthwhile in finding serial criminals.

He thus documented crime scenes using a process called "metric photography." This not only kept a visual record of the scenes for later review but also provided investigators with the scales and dimensions of blood spatter or the distances between the victim and nearby objects. Detectives could also work on cases remotely or through time with these photographs.

Bertillon also thought to record the state of a corpse. He was the first to set his tripod up and capture a crime scene from above, documenting the whole room with the corpse in full view. He also took close-ups of the victims.

Alphonse Bertillon At World Exhibition

New York UniversityBertillon at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition exhibit of his work.

Naturally, Alphonse Bertillon's crime scene photos and mugshots immortalized him in criminal justice history, and he became one of the first forensic investigators to identify a criminal from fingerprints left at the scene in 1902.

But Bertillon was hesitant to accept other innovations in detective work. He had a particular disdain for handwriting analysis, which led to the largest blemish in his career.

Despite having no experience in the matter, he accepted the call to testify in the trials of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 and 1899. Dreyfus was charged with espionage but denied penning the incriminating document in question. In a bizarre testimony, Bertillon claimed Dreyfus did write the document, leading to the defendant's life sentence.

Dreyfus was exonerated in 1906, which somewhat marred Alphonse Bertillon's legacy until his death in 1914.

But despite those scandals, Alphonse Bertillon is nonetheless considered one of the fathers of forensic photography and the very first forensic expert in history.

After looking at these macabre crime scene images taken by Alphonse Bertillon, take a look at 28 serial killer crime scene photos from famous murders. Then, learn about six famous unsolved murders and the killers behind them who were never caught.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "33 Chilling Photos Of Vintage Crime Scenes At The Birth Of Forensic Photography." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 14, 2021, https://allthatsinteresting.com/alphonse-bertillon-photography. Accessed April 19, 2024.