Debriefing on DB: February Edition

Postcard of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1908.


Debriefing on DB: February Edition

On Monday, January 29th, Jen Donnelly, Alison Langmead and I braved a wintry mix of snow and slush, arriving at the Ohio History Connection (OHC) in Columbus by mid-morning. We came for another marathon digitization session, equipped with tripods and digital cameras, laptops, and sufficiently dexterous hands. Our task for the 36-hour visit was to photograph as many Bertillon identification cards as possible, while retaining a sufficiently high-quality image for transcription, and ensuring the safety of the already-brittle cards (some of which are almost 120-years-old).

Alison tackled boxes of cards from the Ohio State Reformatory, beginning in 1907, while Jen and I convened around a less-familiar set of Ohio Penitentiary cards dating from 1896. The Ohio State Reformatory, to clarify between the two, operated from 1896-1990, and was located in Mansfield, Ohio (about 67 miles Northeast of Columbus). The OHC has Bertillon cards from the Reformatory dating back to 1901. As Alison spent the most time engaged with these cards on the most recent trip, I will leave subjective observations on that set up to her.

The Ohio State Penitentiary was a prison operated in Columbus, Ohio between 1834 and 1984, and was infamous for its corruption and inhumanity (for example, newspaper clippings from a 1908 scrapbook allude to various kinds of torture: including instances of paddling, being “hung up,” and enduring the “water cure”- modern day waterboarding). The postcard photographed here illustrates the Penitentiary circa 1909 (the card was postmarked August 1909, and represents a relic from the odd genre of prison tourism- is that even a genre?).

In the midst of all this, or at least until 1919, the Bertillon system was alive and well at the Pen. Marvin E. Fornshell’s The Historical and Illustrated Ohio Penitentiary (1903) provides insight into how the Bertillon system was implemented at the Penitentiary, although his account is extremely skewed (as demonstrated by his effusive subtitle: “How the Wonderful System Works in Picking Out Any One Particular Individual,” p. 49). The Pen adopted the Bertillon system in 1887, taking its first measurement in October of that year (so almost 15 years before the Reformatory adopted the system).

On this January trip, Jen and I lingered mostly in 1896 and 1897, making several subjective observations (as well as more concrete discoveries) along the way. For example, we noted that these early Bertillon cards featured remarkably gaunt and emaciated-looking prisoners, and these inmates tended to be older than their Reformatory counterparts. This may be attributable to the fact that when the system was implemented, some of these prisoners had already been in prison for a while, whereas the Reformatory seemed to mostly track incoming prisoners (again, this is a theory that we may later refute).

Our more concrete findings included locating and photographing the identification card of William Haas, the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair at the Penitentiary. We discovered- much to our horror- that Haas, convicted of murder, was only seventeen at the time of his execution (shockingly and disturbingly, the policy on juvenile executions was only formally changed in March 2005. The United States Supreme Court ruled that “the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution” (DPIC)).

We also located not just one, but TWO sets of twins in our selection of cards. Twins are particularly interesting in the context of the Bertillon system because of the famous Will West case, which was blamed for revealing the cracks in Bertillon’s system. If twins had identical measurements and similar photographs, this would obviously render the system fairly useless, although we are not arguing that identical twins necessarily had identical measurements. We found one set of identical twins and one set of fraternal twins (the latter is photographed here).

It was, overall, a fruitful and thought-provoking trip, yielding digital documentation of over 3,500 that will now enter the transcription phase.

  • Visual Knowledge
  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Graduate Work
  • Faculty Work