Picking Up DB

This post originally appeared on the University of Pittsburgh’s Constellations.

The early stage of engaging with a new project is largely a process of establishing context. This is, in many ways, easier to do when the project is already underway. In becoming better acquainted with the Bertillon system and its implementation in U.S. prisons, I have certainly benefited from the work of my predecessors and collaborators. If, like me, you are new to Decomposing Bodies, previous Constellations posts by other project members provide deeply useful project context.

In addition to reading about the history of Bertillonage in general, and the background of this project specifically, I have been spending some time transcribing the Bertillon cards of prisoners at the Ohio Penitentiary. This is a necessary task, as it creates machine-readable versions of the information contained in image form on the digitized cards, allowing us to work with the raw Bertillon data. But it also serves as an additional means of beginning to better understand the creation and functionality of these cards, and this system, as part of a larger narrative.

When archival records describe a person (or an event or an object, etc.), it’s important to regard them as representations of that person (event, object, etc.) as observed and interpreted by the recorder, and not as objectively true. Though much of the Bertillon system of identification relies on numerical anthropometric data, I am particularly interested in the fields in which officers recorded free text to note country of origin (sometimes labeled nativity), complexion, peculiarities (sometimes labeled general features), and build. This is where the “data” of the cards becomes deeply subjective, sometimes inconsistent, and therefore more challenging for researchers. What can we learn about the officers who entered this information? And to extend the question, what can we then learn about the system in which they were operating?

As someone who is interested in the nature of record creation and management, I am curious about what Bertillonage can tell us about other early systems of standardizing human characteristics. I am also interested in the idea that though a system may be developed to improve information retrieval, that does not prevent the same system from being appropriated for other purposes (see Jennifer’s post on Bertillon and the Chinese Exclusion Act).

Some preliminary searching through the Ohio Penitentiary and State Reformatory records held by the Ohio History Center reveals some additional material that could be of interest to researchers looking to learn more about the prisoner experience during the period in which Bertillonage was used at the prison. For example, an account book of prison labor, a cashbook of the inmates’ earnings, lists of prisoners who were electrocuted, paroled, or pardoned, and perhaps the most macabre items collection, photographs of executed prisoners and of the death house.

Examining one record-keeping system in an institution leads me to wonder about concurrent systems employed at these institutions, and about the people responsible for creating those records and thereby inadvertently creating a sort of rough sketch of the prisoners’ lives, from their physical attributes to their daily locations and activities, and it seems, to their ultimate means of departure from the prison. These are merely some early thoughts on areas that can be explored in more depth, and I look forward to learning more about both Bertillonage and its situation within a network of prison-generated records over the coming months.