Posted by: lcmoynahan | December 12, 2021

Photographing Victorian Crime Scenes

TW/CW: Crime scene photos containing blood, a deceased person and detailed descriptions of deceased persons

Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), French scholar, developed the criminal anthropometry. Self-portrait ID following his own methods made on August 7 1912, at the age of 59. (adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)
Alphonse Bertillon took his own mugshot as an example of the standards he wanted to set. https://www.salon.com/2021/05/15/alphonse-bertillon-and-the-troubling-pursuit-of-human-metrics_partner/

Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was a French photographer credited with standardizing the mugshot in the 1880s but became well known for being one of the first to photograph crime scenes, revolutionizing the documentation used in law enforcement. His father was a physician, likely lending a hand to Bertillon’s stomach for gruesome crime scenes, like one where a victim is decomposed and bloated, eyes bulging while it hangs off the edge of a bed. Bertillon was frustrated with the way law enforcement documented and organized information and photos of criminals, so he developed the first mugshot styles and an anthropometric identification system for criminals. Of course, this method proved to be ineffective in future years and embroiled him in the Dreyfus affair in which his handwriting analysis of a suspect led to the conviction of an innocent man. The conviction was overturned, and eventually, Bertillon moved on to be one of the first crime scene photographers. 

The following are two of Bertillon’s crime scene photos from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are elaborate furnishings, including window hangings and an ornate bed frame with a mini canopy hanging over the head of the bed, looming over a pillow with a lacy cover. A nicely upholstered chair is on the left, catty-cornered between two windows. A short sitting bench and a washbasin are away from the foot of the bed. This is the bedroom of someone with a moderate amount of wealth and could be a point of interest to law enforcement. There is some disarray of the sheets and blankets on the bed, indicating someone having recently woken up. A chair is knocked over, mostly concealed by the bed, and a pillow is on the floor. The eye is quickly drawn to the framed Birth of Venus print on the back wall, unusually tilted, and the large bloodstain on the pillows at the head of the bed.

The second picture reveals Madame Debeinche, the victim. She is lying between the bed and the back wall. A second chair is knocked over. The body of Madame Debeinche is posed eerily similar to the Venus in the painting above her. Her fingers and toes are dark from livor mortis, suggesting she had been dead for six to 12 hours before the photo was taken. She is still wearing her nightclothes, now stained with her blood spatters. Coming from the bottom left corner of the photo is the bottom half of the first tipped chair, pointing directly at the deceased. Despite the coincidence, there is an irony in the painting being the birth of Venus while the death of a woman happened right below it. The positioning of the chairs and tilted picture suggests a struggle between Madame Debeinche and her killer, though the delicate, tall table in the corner holding a vase of flowers remains untouched. 

While generally used for legal purposes, photographs of victims of crimes were treated differently than some others. Notorious outlaw Jesse James and Jack the Ripper victim Mary Kelly were seen as “others” in relation to other victims. In her book Photography and Death: Framing Death Throughout History, Racheal Harris says, “publication and dissemination of the slain criminal body was a tool through which law enforcement might indicate the consequences for criminal behavior” (Harris 36). Jesse James was a bank and train robber and the leader of a gang, highly sought after by law enforcement. When he was caught and killed by the police, his post-mortem was very different from what we see in others. There are no flowers or other adornments in his coffin, he’s not wearing what would be considered his best clothes, and there are officials surrounding him, to indicate he was in fact a criminal. The release of these photos were probably trying to deter anyone else from doing something similar meeting the same fate. Other killed criminals were pictured at the scene of their death, wearing the same clothing they died in, showing a lack of compassion from those involved (Harris 36-37). 

Mary Kelly wasn’t the same kind of criminal that James was. Though sex work was and still mostly remains illegal, Kelly could still be considered the same level of criminal as James. Mary Kelly was the only Ripper victim whose whole body was photographed. She is mutilated beyond recognition from head to toe and some of her organs are set on her side table. Her head is turned toward the camera. Megha Anwer, author of “Murder in Black and White: Victorian Crime Scenes and the Ripper Photographs” details the journalistic aftermath when it was discovered that one of Kelly’s organs, her heart, was missing. The journalists took this information and ran, disregarding the way in which Kelly had been murdered. “To focus on the absent body part becomes a self-deluding detour that allows us to turn a blind eye to the remnants of the savaged body left behind by the murderer,” Anwer says (438). Officials and journalists treated Kelly’s brutal murder as less important and sensationalized it more simply because she was a sex worker. Many consider sex work immoral and degrading to one’s reputation and in society, they are not seen as worthy of the compassion and respect as others. The photograph of Kelly is haunting and gruesome and a stark reminder of why Jack got his Ripper moniker. 

Works Cited

Anwer, Megha. “Murder in Black and White: Victorian Crime Scenes and the Ripper Photographs.” Victorian Studies, vol. 56, no. 3, 2014, pp. 433–441., https://doi.org/10.2979/victorianstudies.56.3.433.

Bertillon, Alphonse. “Album of Paris Crime Scenes.” Metmuseum.org, Metropolitain Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284718.

Harris, Racheal. “Romance: Post-Mortem Photography.” Photography and Death: Framing Death throughout History, 2020, pp. 19–39., https://doi.org/10.1108/978-1-83909-045-520201002.

Jones, Richard. “The Mary Kelly Photo Gallery.” The Mary Kelly Photo Gallery., https://www.jack-the-ripper.org/mary-kelly-gallery.htm.


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