Prior to the implementation of fingerprints as the primary means by which to identify people, many penitentiaries had adopted what was known as the Bertillon system of measurements. These measurements established a record for every prisoner, much like 10-print (fingerprint) cards do today. The basis for this system was anthropometry, which is the measurement of the human body for the purposes of understanding physical variation. Anthropometric measurements were made of each prisoner and included such things as height, stretch, bust, length and width of head, and length of right ear, left foot, left middle finger, and left cubit.
The system worked quite well, until 1903 when Will West was received at Leavenworth Penitentiary. Upon running Will West’s measurements, it was discovered that a “William West” was already imprisoned at Leavenworth. He had the same anthropometric measurements as Will West. A photographic comparison of the two men did little to distinguish them. Finally, two years after Will West was brought to Leavenworth, fingerprints of each man were taken, compared, and found to bear no resemblance. Thus each man was distinguished by his fingerprints. Needless to say, Leavenworth converted from the Bertillon system to the more reliable fingerprint system, which is still in use today. This is a reminder that fingerprints are important.