Uncoverings: measurements of character


A large part of every winter holiday is spent cleaning and organizing the house. But this year the cleaning and organizing are deeper and more thorough. We have emptied an entire file cabinet that used to sit in our bedroom. We are in the process of reorganizing the drawers in the antique piece of (former kitchen, now bedroom) furniture upstairs. The storage space beneath the map table in the library has begun to be emptied. And sorting and purging in the garage is on the agenda for tomorrow.

In the process of going through hidden drawers and piles, we have rediscovered lots of compelling treasures. Here’s one for today, a Scientific American from April 3, 1897 whose cover is all about the Bertillon System of Anthropometric Identification by Measurement, a system that was mainly used to attempt to prevent criminality (see Criminal Cards). It was believed that by carefully measuring those who had been arrested for crimes, and through the careful filing of this data, one might be able to connect suspects to former arrests. These measurements were reduced to a specific formula that was believed could only apply to one person. With the accompanying photographs from front and side (first mug shots), positive identifications could then be made. And many were though there were also many false connections made as well.

These measurements also applied to the practice of phrenology, and ultimately to eugenics, where it was believed that certain physical characteristics predisposed someone to criminality in the first place- that your character, in fact, could be determined by the length of your ear, the shape of your nose, the bumps on your head. In other words, these measurements might be used to “socially” prevent crime as well.

On the one hand, the Bertillon system was obviously flawed because different officers might measure people differently and an aging criminal’s measurements might change over time. But it was also flawed from the phrenological point of view because the specific characteristics that were determined to predispose someone toward a life of crime were in fact racially and ethnically biased (…oh shock).

Once fingerprinting became widespread, the Bertillon System fell out of favor except for the mug shots, of course. Bertillon also pioneered crime scene photography taken before anything was moved which included a grid for accurate location of evidence.

The best part of purgings is the hidden surprises found beneath and long forgotten. Cleaning out the detritus allows for there to be more room and breathing space, both for those of us presently negotiating these spaces, but also for the more tantalizing bits and scraps of the past, waiting to be reinvigorated.


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1 Response to Uncoverings: measurements of character

  1. Jerome Bloom says:


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