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Decomposing Bodies: A Digital Humanities Project at the University of Pittsburgh

Decomposing Bodies: A Digital Humanities Project at the University of Pittsburgh

DISCLAIMER: This post is about a digital humanities project I've been working on for some time. Therefore, I'm going to just kind of dive into a progress report that may or may not be at all meaningful to you. I will be providing further updates on the project that will hopefully help to contextualize it further. To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, I'm attaching a picture of one of the Bertillon cards we've transcribed from the Ohio History Connection--I've blurred the prisoner number to protect the identity of the indivdual, although this card is 112-years-old).

On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, a collaborative research project, housed in the Visual Media Workshop at the University of PIttsburgh, investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. The project is uniquely positioned to engage art historians and information scientists, alike (among others). Here is an excerpt from our little blurb about the project:

this project seeks to create new means of understanding the implications and possibilities inherent in the nineteenth-century process of treating human beings as numbers and letters, and how this approach to the visible world might relate to the dawn of computing 

In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards over the past two years. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910, and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred incarcerated individuals included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team reconvened in Columbus two weeks ago, and I will undoubtedly return to this venue with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 


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