A Look Back at the Crime Scene Photos That Changed How Murder is Documented
A Look Back at the Crime Scene Photos That Changed How Murder is Documented
July 20, 2018
At first glance, the faded 1903 photograph of Mme Debeinche’s bedroom, bound in the yellowed pages of an early 20th-century album, shows what looks to be an unremarkable middle-class Parisian apartment of the time. The overstuffed room brims with floral decoration, from the wallpaper and heavy swag curtains to the carpeting, chair upholstery—even the chamber pot. A large reproduction of Alexandre Cabanel’s voluptuous 1863 painting, “Birth of Venus,” hangs on the wall. A sizeable unmade bed with a hefty carved-wood frame dominates the scene.
But on closer look, there is something unnerving about the tableau. The Venus is crooked. A spindle chair lies on its side. And a curious dark stain has pooled on the otherwise clean white linen sheets. One need only to turn the page of the album to solve the mystery, since the next photo captures the grislier sight on the floor behind the bed: the Madame’s dead body.
When the Paris police investigated Mme Debeinche’s May 1903 murder, they began by photographing the crime scene. And while that might seem mundane to anyone accustomed to TV police procedurals, documenting foul play was a relatively novel use of the camera in 1903. Her bedroom remains one the earliest recorded crime scenes, and the Madame herself has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the earliest murder victims preserved in a photograph.
These images now reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of an extraordinary historical document: a nearly 100-page album of unflinching crime photos from the dawn of the 20th century. It was originally made under the direction of Alphonse Bertillon, a Parisian-records-clerk-turned-pioneering-criminologist who is now largely regarded as the father of forensic photography. While working for the Paris police prefecture, he not only pioneered the crime-scene photograph and its counterpart, the mugshot, but he used his lowly filing job to create the first cross-referenced, retrievable index-card system of criminal data. His work documenting, measuring and categorizing victims and criminals alike revolutionized how photography was used both by the police—and, subsequently, in courts of law.
By all accounts, Bertillon was an exacting and obsessive man who, after an unsuccessful stint in the army, joined the Paris police department in 1879 at the urging of his medical-professor father. He soon turned his attention to the problem of recidivism, a chronic problem in Paris since the record-keeping of convicts’ names and photos was haphazard at best; repeat offenders couldn’t often be identified as such, and thus weren’t given commensurate punishments. Attempts to systematize criminal records before Bertillon—including detective Allan Pinkerton’s “Rogues’ Gallery”—hadn’t been efficient or effective. Less than a year after starting his job, the French police clerk proposed addressing the problem with a three-part system that came to be known as Bertillonage.
First, he outlined measurements to map a criminal’s body—things like head width, arm span, sitting height and finger length. Then came a physical description that he called a “speaking portrait,” that included unique identifiers ranging from tattoos, moles and scars to hair-growth pattern and shoulder inclination. And finally, the system called for two photographs of the criminal—one frontal and the other in profile. (Bertillon believed ear size and shape could especially aid in identification.) All that information would be placed onto a single card that could be filed into an orderly, cross-referenced archive that could help police more easily run a check and identify a repeat offender. The system was quickly adopted by the Paris police department, throughout Europe and, before the close of the 19th century, in New York and Chicago too.
In addition to revolutionizing police work, Bertillon’s approach to photography had a profound effect on how photos were understood and used. Believing that the medium was more objective than the human eye, he saw it as a powerful tool in his quest to apply scientific methods to collecting evidence and identifying lawbreakers. But he didn’t see photos as entirely objective, since gazing at a portrait, for example, came with a number of cultural precepts about how and why to look. So to distinguish the mug shot from its better known cousin, the half-length portrait—and create documentary evidence that would hold up better in court—he deployed his secret weapon: detailed standardization of everything from how a suspect is lighted to how he or she is posed. He also developed a system called metric photography, using a series of measured grids to standardize the scale between photos and quantify both the dimensions of objects and the distances between them.
By the time Bertillon began photographing crime scenes, his reputation was well-established. In 1888, he had been appointed head of the newly created Department of Judicial Identity in the Paris police prefecture. In 1902, the year prior to the Madame’s murder, Bertillon had been celebrated as the greatest police officer in all of Europe by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, placed Bertillon higher than his own fictional genius, Sherlock Holmes, writing: “To the man of precisely scientific mind, the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.” As his Bertillon system spread, he was lauded with medals and recognitions all around the continent, from France, England and Holland to Sweden and Romania.
As the Metropolitan Museum’s album shows, Bertillon documented crime scenes with the same unflinching eye as he did criminal perpetrators. Some of the victims, like Madame Debeinche, were found in their bedrooms. Others lay in kitchens or living rooms. Some bodies had been abandoned in warehouses or left lying among garbage on a crumbling tile floor. The album shows ransacked rooms, chillingly exposed nude cadavers and close-ups of their ghastly head wounds.
In some cases, the album jarringly juxtaposes images of the dead with photos of when they were still alive. On one page, women are rendered in lovely carte-de-visites (late-19th-century photographic calling cards), depicted as daughters or sisters, as glamorous women once flattered by the beneficial lighting of a portrait photographer. On the next page, their human value is gone; they become corpses, bloody and harshly lit.
Like the criminals whose bodies were subjected to detailed documentation, victims were recorded with similarly exacting methods at the crime scene. Bertillon developed a system that could indefinitely preserve the scene while teasing out pertinent details that might be used more effectively in court than less scientifically conceived photographs of previous decades.
Using his metric photography grids and hand-drawn diagrams, Bertillon helped clarified the scale of crime scenes and the distance between objects, often allowing inspectors to reconstruct a scene in three dimensions. Though there is only a crude, early iteration of Bertillon’s grid in the Met’s album, more refined examples of the method are housed in the Archives de la Préfecture de Police in Paris. That collection also holds examples of Bertillon’s use of the grid that recreate the topographical dimensions of an entire crime scene. In one compelling example from 1909, Bertillon mapped three rooms of a Parisian home that was the site of a double murder.
In 1903, he constructed a custom tripod with long legs designed for placing the camera directly over a body. The “God’s-eye view,” as it was called, was meant to survey the scene from above, and the eerily omniscient photos it produced offered a comprehensive view to investigators before they turned to more granularly detailed images.
One album page containing six photographs illustrates Bertillon’s measuring and inventorying impulses. The unnamed victim has been propped up to be photographed according to the guidelines of biometric measurement system. Three of the photographs show the anonymous body, one with his hat perched on his head, and three are of objects in his possession: a pair of boots and a pocket watch.
But even Bertillon’s ordered approach couldn’t mask the messy or random details of a victim’s life—the unruly bric-à-brac, the unmade bed, the missing shoe. More than a century after Mme Debeinche’s death, the crime-scene photographs offer specifics about her life—her penchant for floral upholstery, her appreciation of shaggy carpets—that continue to compel the eye. Evident, too, is that the Madame had been dead for several hours before she was photographed, her hands and feet both having begun the unmistakable process of post-mortem darkening.
The images never brought investigators any closer to solving her case. There are no surviving records of either an arrest or a prosecution for her murder.
Bertillon’s innovations in forensic photography, like his approach to documenting criminals, were adopted quickly. In 1915, New York City, for one, launched its Department of Photographs, to capture everything from crime scenes to the city’s blue-collar workers and the cityscape itself, treating the topography itself as a kind of Bertillon record to be captured and archived.
But by 1907, half of Europe had discarded Bertillonage, believing that the science of fingerprinting (recently refined by Francis Galton, a British contemporary of Bertillon) was a more reliable form of identification, more likely to eliminate the problem of human subjectivity that Bertillon himself identified. Still, the mug shot still endures, as does forensic crime-scene photography.
A macabre genealogy stretches from Mme Debeinche to the reproductions of crime-scene photos that proliferate in true-crime documentaries and dramas today. The very idea that a violent death was worth the gaze of the camera’s lens, its image valued enough to be preserved and archived, belongs to Bertillon. He still haunts the scene of every crime.