The New Sciences of Detection

By the 1880s, urban police forces began developing new techniques for keeping track of criminals, especially new techniques of record-keeping. Most of these techniques were heavily influenced by criminology, a field of study which sought to discover the relationship between what people looked like and their character.

This is the frontispiece of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso's Criminal Man, published in 1887 and reprinted in Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. Lombroso searched for a relation between appearance and character

Lombroso claimed that to the trained eye, the eye of the detective, these people would clearly be organized into categories. Those in group "A" are all shoplifters, "B" are swindlers, "H" are purse snatchers, "E" are murderers, etc. A crowd of strangers is rendered into categories. And supposedly you can see a man's real character at a glance.

Lombroso often lamented the fact that his fellow Europeans were skeptical about his work. But he took comfort from the fact that Americans loved it. His work was far more influential in the United States than anywhere else.


Mug Shots


This picture comes from a book of "mug shots." The mug shot originated in the 1880s, in studies designed to explore the relationship between appearance and criminal behavior. These men are all forgers. The New York Police Department compiled this record in part to see if all forgers looked alike, or all murderers looked alike, or if all burglars had the same facial features.

They don't, but that didn't stop the search. Another example appears below.

This photo, taken in Kearney, Nebraska in 1905, describes what was then a new "fad:" photographing suspects. suspects brought in for "mug shots" would often try to defeat the camera by moving their heads or by making distorted faces. It's not uncommon at all to see images like ths, of suspects being forcibly held in place.


Francis Galton and Composite Types



The English scientist Francis Galton, a close relative of Charles Darwin, is most know today as one of the founders of Eugenics (the science of "breeding" better humans through selective reproduction), and as the inventor of fingerprints. These photographs are part of a series of experiments in racial identity and character. Galton would take photographs of a dozen or so people, all of them, say , Italian, then using multiple exposures combine them into the "ideal type of the Italian." He called these "composite photographs."

This first is a "composite photo" of, on the left, 12 English officers in the Royal Engineers, and next to them on the right, 12 privates. Galton took photos of twelve men from each rank, then superimposed them on each other to sort of "morph" a perfect type. Then, he claimed, commanding officers could measure a man's leadership ability by how close he came to the "type" on the left.



Above is a composite of, on the left, 9 men; on the right, 5 men, and in the center, left and right combined. These men were all criminals. Galton assumed he had discovered "the face of crime." If a man resembled this picture, you could assume he was a criminal, or at least a "criminal type."



This is a composite photo of twelve Boston physicians, from McClure's Magazine, September 1894. Why produce such an image? Maybe you could use it to find out what the ideal type of a doctor should look like. Then maybe you could judge how good your doctor was by how much he looked like the ideal type of a doctor.

Or, you could use it to weed people out of medical school--admit one person who looks like the ideal type, and deny another who looks different.

Maybe the result would be a society where only people who "really were" doctors could be doctors. Or maybe it would result in a society where you could only be a doctor if you looked something like the imaginary gentleman in the middle.

A more modern application of the same idea appears below: "Betty Crocker."

The first picture of "Betty Crocker" was created in 1936, by an artist who blended the features of women who worked in management at General Mills. She's been redesigned 9 times since, to more closely reflect the ideal consumer of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. General Mills used at least seventy five different faces (for an example, click here) to come up with this computer generated "ideal type," the current face of Betty Crocker.

This face is supposed to both represent and appeal to the widest possible spectrum of American women likely to buy products with the Betty Crocker brand. As the doctor above is the "ideal" doctor, so she is the ideal American housewife of the 1990s.



This image describes an indexing system Francis Galton proposed for measuring the ratios of various facial parts to each other. Galton assumed that close studies of these ratios would reveal the character of the person being studied.



This man is undergoing "Bertillon measurements". Bertillon, a French criminologist, theorized that truly identifying people by appearance would require more precise techniques than the mug shot. He measured hundreds of body details, and then compiled them into indexes of ear types and sizes, arm lengths, nose shape, etc.

Below you can see a card, giving Bertillon measurements for a suspect arrested in 1903.

Although American police forces used Bertillon measurements well into the twentieth century, the huge Bertillon databases proved too unwieldy to be useful. Other techniques, like fingerprinting, were eventually more successful


Seen of the Crime

The New York City Police Department began photographing crime scenes early in the twentieth century. Then ,as now, the idea was to compile a exact record of evidence. They are part of a series of photographs of crimes scenes, most far more grisly or grim or depressing than these. It was a violent place. These photos come from a book by Luc Sante, Evidence




crime scene in little Italy, 1915








pool hall murder, approx. 1915