Debriefing on DB: January Edition


Debriefing on DB: January Edition

On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, the VMW research project investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910 (see image), and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred inmates included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team will reconvene in Columbus next week, and we will undoubtedly return with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 

  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Graduate Work
  • Faculty Work
  • VMW