A Verbal Portrait: Victorian Criminal Identification Methods

Before the contemporary methods of forensic identification of criminals was developed, such as COMFIT or even the fingerprints databases, nineteenth century police forces around the world relied on a range of methods for identification. One of them was anthropometry, which evolved from the pseudoscience of phrenology which relied on series of cranial measurements to divine individual's characteristics including proclivity towards criminality.

Signalment is the description of the one whom it is desired to identify.

In 1882, Alphonse Bertillon developed anthropometry, a criminal identification system also known as bertillonage. Bertillon devised three kinds of signalment: anthropometrical (based on series of specific body measurements), descriptive and signalment by peculiar marks (such as tattoos, scars, birthmarks). Prior to Bertillon’s method of classification, historically the following judicial identification techniques were utilised:

(1) the impression of the tip of the thumb (China)

(2) the plaster cast of the jaw

(3) the minute drawing of the areola and denticulation of the human iris

(4) the impression, mould, or photograph of the ear, the hollows and projections of which present so great and individual variety that it is almost impossible to find two human ears exactly alike, with the shape remaining unchanged from infancy to old age

(5) the anatomical description of peculiar marks, beauty-spots, scars, etc.

Abstract of the Anthropometrical Signalment.

‘Some one said long ago that it is impossible to find two leaves exactly alike. Nature never repeats itself’; applying Bertillon’s descriptive and athropometrical signalments, a drawing helped capture a fugitive Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, an ear, throat and nose specialist of Hilldrop Crescent, Camden road, London. When his wife, Bell Elmore, disappeared in January, 1910, Crippen claimed they had a fight and she told him she was leaving him. He told the police that she had gone back to America and eloped with a man with whom she had long been on too familiar terms. Mrs Crippen was last seen by her friends on the night of 31 January, 1910:

Crippen was an American citizen, and practised as a doctor in the United States prior to going to London as a medical agent for certain companies. He married Cora Turner (an actress, whose stage name was Belle Elmore) in America about the year 1903, and they lived together in England for 10 years. To their friends they always appeared to be on affectionate terms, but during the last three years at least Crippen was cherishing hatred of his wife, and misconducting, himself with a young typist, Ethel Le Neve. Shortly afterwards [after the wife’s disappearance] Le Neve was observed wearing some of the woman’s clothing and jewellery. (The Register, 24 Oct 1910)

A search of Crippen’s house revealed a dismembered set of remains buried in quicklime beneath the bricks in the cellar. Crippen later attempted to flee to Canada on a boat via Brussels with his secretary, Ethel Le Neve disguised as a boy. The fugitives were arrested on board the Atlantic liner Montrose bound for Montreal, Quebec. Soon after, Crippen was tried and convicted of murder. He was executed on 23 November, 1910. Le Neve, ‘the infatuated typist’, was exonerated.

Nose and ears, Signaletic instructions including the theory and practice of Anthropometrical Signalment.

Anthropometry, as a forensic method of identification, did not stand the test of time and was discredited late last century due to its unreliability. The system could not be depended upon to significantly distinguish between two people whose body measurements and facial features were similar.