Updates to Decomposing Bodies

  • The reverse side (without mugshot) of a Bertillon card
  • The cover of the book "Punishment and Inequality in America" by Bruce Western
  • A screenshot of the tags currently in use in the Decomposing Bodies Omeka site
The reverse side (without mugshot) of a Bertillon card

The reverse side (without mugshot) of a Bertillon card


Updates to Decomposing Bodies

This term is seeing some big changes for Decomposing Bodies— some that will be apparent from the outside, and some that will only affect those of us working behind the scenes. The Decomposing Bodies project has been a part of the VMW since the winter of 2013, and has gone through several phases over the years. This term, myself, along with two First Experience in Research (FER) students, as well as the support of the entire staff of the VMW, we are rolling out the next phase in Decomposing Bodies— what it is, how it’s organized, and who it’s for.



Creating a dataset of the text written on the Bertillon cards in the images that make up DB is the process of transcription, which is work that is shared between everyone working in the VMW. We use the content management system (CMS) Omeka, which is a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, at George Mason University. A part of the transcription system involves the use of tags, which allow users to indicate how much of a card has been transcribed, and whether there are any anomalies with the card. This makes review by the Project Manager much easier, and keeps track of our progress on the transcriptions. Beginning in January, we transferred to a new system of tags, which document similar aspects of the transcription process, but in more explicit terms. For example, the tag “pass1a” has become “Front,” indicating that all the fields on the front of a particular card have been transcribed. Not all of the tags translate so cleanly from one system to another, which is why before implementing the new system, I created what is known in the info management world as a “crosswalk”: a document outlining the items in the new tag schema, and their relationships to the old system. Future researchers using the DB dataset will likely never encounter these tags, or be affected by this change, but it marks a shift in how the ongoing work on this project is handled.



However, not all the planned work on Decomposing Bodies will be behind the scenes. After the Data (after)Lives exhibition last fall, we’ve been working with Sam Nosenzo, an undergraduate Computer Engineering major here at Pitt, to create interactive visualizations of the faces from the Bertillon cards. This project is an extension of Sam’s piece with Alison Langmead and Aaron Henderson for Data (after)Lives, 7,105 Faces, in Order, and asks the viewer to confront the humanity of the people documented by the Bertillon cards. This interactive tool, as well as a static video version, will be a part of the public-facing Decomposing Bodies website, which is in the process of getting a major overhaul this term.

Besides integrating Sam’s work, I have also been working on creating a comprehensive timeline of the past three and a half years of work on Decomposing Bodies, which will documented on the DB website. Along with this timeline, there are myriad resources related to Bertillonage, criminality, prison reform, surveillance practices, and facial recognition technologies that the research team has collected over the years. This bibliography, as well as some discussion of its influence on our own work with DB, will also be available on the updated website. These updates are expected to be live by the end of the Spring term. Keep an eye out here for the official launch date!



As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, Decomposing Bodies has two FER students this term: Joe Jang and Ashley Cipcic. They have been assisting with transcriptions of Bertillon cards, as well as developing a research project related to the content of the cards they’re looking at. They will both be writing blog posts documenting their work this semester. Ashley’s blog posts are at http://www.constellations.pitt.edu/blogs/ashley-cipcic, and Joe’s are at http://www.constellations.pitt.edu/blogs/joe-jang.


Prison Reform and Bertillonage

Finally, in thinking about not only creating the DB dataset, but also engaging with the objects and concepts that the dataset documents, I am beginning exploratory research into the role of Bertillonage in the prison reform movements happening across the United States, but especially in the midwest, at the turn of the 20th century. The implementation of Bertillonage in the Ohio State Reformatory and the Ohio Penitentiary— and across the US in general— is an interesting permutation of Bertillon’s original system, which was intended for use in the police force, in order to identify recidivist criminals at the point of arrest, rather than as a form of documentation for individuals as they move into the penal system. The conflation, or at least shortening of distance, between policing and prisons in the United States during this time has powerful repercussions for how crime, punishment, and surveillance are treated in contemporary discourse. You can see my ongoing reading list for this project at: https://www.zotero.org/shackney19/items/collectionKey/2QXCC52E  

  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Graduate Work
  • VMW