Spot the difference? In 1903, a prisoner named Will West arrived at Leavenworth. The record clerk took a good look at mugshots and insisted that he had seen him before. West said that he had never been to Leavenworth before. However, the clerk was convinced he had seen the mugshot before, so he retrieved the file based on West’s measurements. When he showed it to West, he insisted it was not him: “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it because I’ve never been here before!”
West wasn’t lying. The other man on the mugshot had the exact same measurements and looked virtually identical. To make things even more confusing, the other man was named William West. Of course, it’s possible the were doppelgängers were just identical twins, separated at birth, but their remarkable case helped bring in the era of fingerprint identification.
The case highlighted the flaws in the Bertillon method (identification system based on physical measurements, e.g. mugshots) for criminal identification and it wasn’t long before the U.S authorities and rest of the world turned to fingerprinting.
Of course, mugshots still hold their place in criminal identification, often incorporated into wanted posters, such as FBI Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. There is even an online industry developed around the publication and removal of mug shots from internet websites. While legal, it’s often close to extortion.
Unfortunately, criminal anthropology also had a dark side. For an example, Cesare Lombroso – an Italian criminologist and physician, using concepts from Social Darwinism, he believed criminality was inherited. He didn’t believe crime was a characteristic trait of human nature, but rather someone born criminal could be identified by physical defects.
Or phrenology, developed by a German physician named Franz Joseph Gall in the late 1700s. After examining the heads of a number of young pickpockets, Gall found that many of them had bumps on their skull just above their ears. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where theories like these have led the society.
From Doppelgängers Will and William West to fingerprinting and phrenology. And some cool vintage mugshots as a bonus.