Decomposing Bodies

Primary Contacts:
Dr. Alison Langmead
Department of History of Art & Architecture and School of Computing & Information

Dr. Josh Ellenbogen
Department of History of Art & Architecture

Project Manager, 2014-2015
Research Assistant, 2013-2014

Aisling Quigley
School of Computing & Information

University of Pittsburgh


For a project overview, please refer to this tidy write-up on the DHRX website. I became involved in this project in September of 2013. At that stage, Dr. Alex Oliver (1983-2017) and I endeavored to locate archival records related to the implementation of the Bertillon system of criminal identification in the United States.


I’ve been invested in this project from the start because I’m interested and concerned about surveillance, American penal institutions, and the way human beings are so routinely reduced to numbers. I was fortunate to become a part of this project through my work at the Visual Media Workshop with Dr. Langmead.


PHASE 1: preparation and data seeking
September-December 2013
Alex and I emailed and telephoned various archives around the United States. In those early days, we posited that we were “primarily interested in statistical data related to the cards.” We were trying to determine the total extent of the federal holdings of Bertillon cards.

After reaching out to the Chicago Crime Commission, the National Archives at Atlanta, and the National Archives at Kansas City, among many other institutions, I received a very promising email back from the Ohio History Center (now the Ohio History Connection, or OHC). We had faced considerable obstacles: a government shut-down, the unexpected reverberations of Hurricane Sandy, the perils of the academic calendar…but had finally made significant progress.

The OHC finding aids suggested that their archive was home to several thousand Bertillon cards (approximately 40,000!) with photographs (to see these, enter the search term “bertillon” into this online catalog).

December 2013
Dr. Ellenbogen, Dr. Langmead, and I made our first trip to the OHC to look at the archival holdings and meet with their manager of digital services.

February 2014
Alex, Dr. Ellenbogen, Dr. Langmead and I provided a progress report at the Visual Media Workshop Team Colloquium,”Producing Collaborative Work in the Humanities: The Case of Decomposing Bodies.”

Having made a preliminary trip to Columbus, Ohio to view the archival holdings, we now aimed to photograph some of this material for the purposes of data transcription and further analysis.

PHASE 2: data collection
Update posted here.