Friday Faces – The Bertillon System, Black Sheep, and Georgia Photographers

Wright, Jeff Speedway Pickpockets 1910

The newspaper photograph above caught my eye when I was searching for something else in the 1910 Atlanta newspapers (Atlanta Georgian & News, Dec. 20, 1910 p5 c2-4). If you seek that black sheep juvenile delinquent in your family by the name of Henderson, Sparks, Gibson, or Bennett, here they are!

I noted a credit in this caption for a photographer I had not run across before, so I had to check into it. Not only was my question who was Jeff Wright?,  but it was also what in the world is a Bertillon expert and how does it relate to photography?

In the back of my mind, I knew I had seen the word before. Now I know it was in my reading of far too many mysteries placed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed, I found that the word was even mentioned by A. Conan Doyle more than once in reference to his character Sherlock Holmes. A prospective client tells Holmes that he is “the second highest expert in Europe,” the first being “Monsieur Bertillon –“. You can read his story this quote comes from, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” as it was published in The Sunny South on July 5, 1902. 

Before searching for said Jeff Wright, I Googled Bertillion (the spelling of which varies with and without the second i), then I searched the Atlanta newspapers online for more mentions of the Atlanta police and their use of “the system.” Afterward I searched census and city directories online for “Jeff Wright.” A more thorough search, for another researcher, would also involve the records of the Atlanta Police Department, and perhaps also the records of the Atlanta Federal Prison. An examination of the use of the system in other Georgia police departments would certainly add a lot.

According to Wikipedia, Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), a French police officer, “applied the technique of anthropometry to law enforcement, creating an identification system based on physical measurements” and supposedly what was to be called a “mug shot,” came about with the standardization of his system about 1888. His system was widely used until a useful method of fingerprinting became standard, but many of Bertillon’s methods are the basis of some of those still used in forensics today.

The first mention of Bertillon’s method I found in the Atlanta news is a note that “According to M. Bertillon’s police detectives’ photography, the ear is the most important factor in the problem of identification.” (Sunny South Dec. 6, 1890 p. 3 c.3). I know that by that time Atlantans were aware of the “system.”

In 1896 (Atlanta Constitution Nov. 10 p9 c3), a third subtitle in announcements regarding the meeting of the board of police commissioners is Bertillion System Soon To Be In Working Order in Atlanta – How It Works.

Chief Connolly announced that the instruments to be used in the Bertillon system of identifying criminals in the local departments have arrived. A few more attachments have to be completed, and the system will be in good working order.


Photograph from Alphonse Bertillon’s photo album from his exhibition at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Ten years later the Atlanta Police Board was [still!] to install the Bertillon system in the Atlanta police department “if the committee — reports favorably. An expert in the system will be employed or one of the detectives will be sent to Washington to be trained—.” (Atlanta Georgian, Sept. 12, 1906, p7 c3-4). The article goes on to say that the system was “now in use by the detective and police departments of all the great cities of the world.”

Regarding photography, they wrote “full face and profile photographs” were made of any criminal arrested for a serious crime (pickpockets?) as well as accurate measurements and a detailed description, which were all put on file.

Another ten years passed, and in 1917 the Atlanta Constitution noted in a report on the board of police commissioners that the chief of police had recommended “the establishment of a Bertillion system for identifying criminals.” They were to ask [the Atlanta City] Council for the money. (Dec. 19, 1917 p2 c2)

Curious! It seems the Atlanta police department had a Bertillon expert by at least 1909. Over a year before the publication of the composite photo of the four pickpockets made by a “Bertillon expert of the police department” used at the head of this post, one by “Bertillon Expert J. A. Patterson” of the police department was published (Atlanta Georgian & News, Feb. 23, 1909, p1 c2-3).

Patterson, J.A. Bertillion photos 1909 criminal detail

That article regards one Will Knight, a “confessed member of the cracksmen gang” who refused to have his photo taken by police, but was taken to the third floor of the police station “to be photographed by Bertillon Expert J. A. Patterson” who tried and tried to do his work. Two detectives were called in to hold the prisoner, but even “with a heavy hand gripping the back of his head and another in his hair,” Knight “closed his eyes” and Patterson did not get the “real expression of his face.”

Such pictures are authorized by law, and when the police want the photo of a criminal they mean to get it, one way or another.

The other gang members, William Jones, Jim Webb, and Leroy Crozier were no problem for Patterson. Another clue for those seeking their wayward ancestors, their black sheep, by those names.

In 1911 “Expert” Jeff Wright was again mentioned, and it was another uncooperative prisoner named D. G. Flynn, alias R. G. Carter

taken into the Bertillon room at the police station– to have his photo and measurements taken by Expert Jeff Wright –. He absolutely refused at first to be photographed and several officers were called to hold him in front of the camera. — he sullenly submitted.

There are, unfortunately, no images with this article – sigh. (“Short Change Artist Tries to Work Chief,” Atlanta Georgian & News, March 8, 1911, p5 c5)


Bain News Service photograph of a class on the Bertillon system in France, 1911;  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Jeff Wright is actually Marshall Jefferson Wright (1870-1933), a son of Atlanta police captain James Madison Wright (1849-1920) who became part of the U.S. secret service. In 1902 Captain J. M. Wright was instructed by Washington officials to begin “to have all his prisoners measured by the Bertillion system,” and he had already received “scales and other necessary paraphernalia for this purpose.” (Atlanta Constitution June 19, 1902 p10 c3)

“Jeff” began working with the Atlanta police as early as 1895 as superintendent of the signal service. This was his given occupation on the 1910 Federal census and the 1911 Atlanta city directory, about the time he would have replaced Patterson as the police department’s “Bertillon Expert.”

By 1920, according to the census, J. M. Wright, like his father,  had become a Captain in the Atlanta police force. By the time the 1930 census was taken, he was their Finger Print Expert. The Bertillon System had been replaced. It would be quite some time before DNA, too, would play a part in law enforcement.

I hope you found this information as interesting as I, but if not, maybe next time I can compose something more useful to you. Until then, best of luck in your own Hunting and Gathering.

© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without  written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. The piece can be re-blogged, and excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Kind of scary to think of what was regarded as science. You caused me to go check out more about Bertillon, and I read with distaste about his negative involvement in the Dreyfus affair. But what an interesting post.

    1. Indeed, an interesting topic. I gave a link for those who really wanted to “get into it.” I did not want to lead anyone to any of my own conclusions about this System!

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