The Bertillon System of Classification and the Dream of a Global Index of the “Criminal Race”

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Benjamin A. Wiggins, University of Minnesota
In March of 1887 the men in charge of America’s prisons met in Detroit to form the Association of Wardens and Superintendents of American Prisons (AWSAP).  The stated goal of this nascent organization was “to secure the registration in a central office, of the criminal record of prisoners…with a view between distinguishing habitual and occasional offenders.”  Simply put, the AWSAP was building a network for the purpose of identifying a criminal race. 

They found an answer to their identification conundrum in the work of a desk clerk at the Paris Prefecture of Police, Alphonse Bertillon, who devised a system that mapped and measured the body of each criminal and cataloged and indexed a near-exhaustive account of their physical features.  Paris implemented this system of anthropometry in 1882 and it was catching recidivists by the following year.  In 1888, Major R.W. McClaughry, secretary of the AWSAP and warden of Illinois State Penitentiary, imported the system to America.  

Focusing on the implementation of the Bertillon system at Joliet Prison, my presentation explores the racial politics of criminal identification in the period after branding and before fingerprinting.  I show that this ostensible reform dispensed with the racial categories of the day, but only to create a more perfect system of body-based classification.  I illustrate how this new schema not only continues the practice of racialization, but also attempts to standardize race internationally as it envisions a global index networked to allow police of across the world to identify a “race” of habitual criminals.

See more of: Poster Session, Part 2
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