Identifying the *Other*: imperial fingerprints and anthropometry

Myths and Measurements:
From Phrenology to
Week 3
and the
path to the
Key points
• Propounded by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), phrenology
was based in the idea that the brain had approximately 26
‘organs’ or ‘mental faculties’, each of which represented a
particular trait or propensity (such as intelligence,
acquisitiveness, and self-esteem).
• These organs could be perceived and compared via minute
measurement of the contours of the skull.
• While Gall believed that the innate organs shrank or grew
with use, others argued that they were fixed and determined
• Phrenology was enormously popular, and sparked
developments including crainiology, but also contemporary
ideas of a modular brain with ‘speech centres’ etc.
Key Points
• Where phrenology measured the skull as a way to
measure the mind and personality, craniometry
measured skulls to determine the volume of the brain
and to identify and rank the ‘races of man’.
• Petrus Camper popularised the idea of the ‘facial angle’:
‘The two extremities of the facial line are from 70 to 80
degrees from the negro to the Grecian antique: make it
under 70, and you describe an ourang or an ape.’
(Camper's Works, p. 42, translated by Cogan, 1821.)
• Craniometry became an essential part of physical
anthropology, and of scientific racism.
• Literally, ‘the measurement of man’;
• Like craniometry, anthropometry was closely
associated with the new discipline of
anthropology, and with the idea that measuring
the body could reveal data about mental as well
as physical aptitudes and traits;
• In parallel, systems of anthropometric
measurement were developed to identify
individuals and ‘types’ (and thus to allow both
reactive and pro-active identification of
criminals). Among the most important of these
systems was Bertillonage.
Bertillonage as a
surveillance system:
Key Features
Use of standardization for:
Measurements taken,
Mode of measuring
Mode of notation
Mode of filing and
accessing results
Ability to locate and SHARE
‘portait parlé
Abbreviations designed
for use with telegraphy
• The context:
• Late 19th c. sees
increasing fear of the
‘recidivist criminal’ – and
the radicalised poor.
• The problem: how to
identify this mobile, urban
and wily population?
• c. 1870s, Cesare
Lombroso popularises
idea of biological, rather
than moral criminality –
making the identification
of potential rather than
actual criminals a
Segregating the
‘criminal race’
Who would
be ‘suspect’?
• The mobile poor
‘gypsies’, most
immigrant groups)
• Non-whites
• ‘degenerates’
• Prostitutes
• Colonial
Bertillonage in action, NYC
Information and questions for
lecture and seminar next week
Fingerprint Chronology Part 1: Britain
• 1880s Faulds enlists Darwin, and is put in touch with Galton;
publishes in Nature
• 1886-1888 Faulds in touch with Scotland Yard promoting use of
fingerprints in criminal forensics
• 1888 Galton and Herschel begin correspondence about
• 1892 Galton publishes Fingerprints, British Assoc for
Advancement of Science calls for a better system of identifying
criminals (though it had Bertillonage in mind)
• 1894 Troup Committee supports use of fingerprints in theory,
but classification too difficult; they go with Bertillon.print combo
• 1900 Belper Committee: Fingerprints ‘absolute impressions
taken from the body itself’; recommends trial of ‘the Indian
• 1902 First use of fingerprints as trial evidence in UK (Harry
Jackson trial)
• 1902 By end of year, 1722 criminals identified by fingerprints
• 1909 Fingerprints ruled as acceptable proof of identity even in
isolation – without need for personal recognition of their bearer!
Fingerprint Chronology Part 2: USA
• 1883 Attempts to institute prints as id for Chinese migrants/returners: ‘The
thumb marks of Mon Shing, a Chinese laundryman, are more easily
recognizable than his face”. Scheme came to nothing when US banned all
such migrants from entry/return in 1888
• 1903/1918 Will/William West ‘case’ ‘shows’ flaws of anthropometry
• 1906 Army fingerprints recruits
• 1924 FBI founded as Identification Division of the Justice Department’s
Bureau of Investigation, under John Edgar Hoover. Hoover immediately
promotes idea of ‘domestic surveillance’ of all, not just known criminals.
• 1929 All federal employees fingerprinted
• 1932 Lindberg Baby kidnapping: children recognised as group potentially
benefited by fingerprinting
• 1935 Social Security Act (assigning unique number for each citizen as
condition of receiving benefits): NO FINGERPRINTS solicited or taken.
• 1936 Public drives and ‘education’ promoting voluntary fingerprinting for all;
ACLU and public opposition
• 1937 Civilian Conservation Corps fingerprinted
• 1939 All WPA employees printed
• 1940 Alien Registration Act: fingerprinting and registration of all immigrants
14 or older
• 1943 Citizens Identification Act FAILS on right to privacy grounds
Fingerprinting and technology
How have technologies made the biometrics of identification and
surveillance possible?
1879 Bertillon invents workable filing system for his data
1897 Henry creates categorization and filing system for fingerprints
1919 Modus Operandi punch card system and sorting machine created for
1924 IBM founded, based on better card sorting technologies
1934 FBI gets IBM card sorter (still can’t handle the volume of data produced by
Soc Sec Act a year later)
1937 IBM horizontal card sorter can sort 420 cars per minute
1963 Grid classification system introduced for optical recognition of prints;
automated print id system project initiated by FBI and Nat’l Bureau of Standards
1972 FBI installs first automated scanning system and begins scanning in old
files – by 1980, 14.3 million entered
1979 Automated searches begin; candidates thus discovered still finally matched
by a human from candidate pool – still done today
Late 1970s AFIS (automated fingerprint identification system: DIGITAL) first
marketed (cost: circa $2-10 million)
1986: AFIS- type digital systems become standard – but which one? Still trying
to create a single standard, even today.
1993 OJ Simpson trial draws public attention to ‘DNA fingerprinting’
Reading Questions on Cole
• Why (and when) did fingerprints replace
Bertillonage in the US?
• What was the point of the Will West
• What different forces shaped responses to
fingerprints in the US, Argentina, India and
• Were fingerprints really unmediated,
‘transparent’ marks of identity taken
directly from the body? Are they now?
Reading Question for Sengoopta
• Why were fingerprints used for civil and
criminal matters in India, but only for
criminal identification (and a handful of
expelled Aliens) in England?
Thinking Ahead:
• What social, political and technological
changes have allowed the introduction of
fingerprinting for all asylum seekers under
the Asylum and Immigrations Appeals Act
of 1993? And the suggestion of biometric
‘smart cards’ for all benefit recipients (inc
NHS users)?
Great Websites to explore
• And for fun, ‘get your head examined’: