From the point of view of identifying people quickly, with the full, historical coercion level of highly organized states, up to, but not including, development of photographic imaging and telegraphs, c 1860s, how much did our lack of non-photographic "suspect description" or broadcast technologies affect historically known incidents of suspect apprehension successes or failures?

If you were a serial killer/military spy/person blackmailing the hereditary monarch about her propensity for picking her august nose, could you have reasonably slipped out, after being fingered, in the 1500s? In the 1800s? Did it happen?

Something like say Mata Hari slipping out because the description was easy to mess up? Would Napoleon have managed to arrest a known spy?

As you gradually got out of your immediate area of police notoriety, wouldn't you very quickly be able to slip ahead of any organized search?

To be clear, consider anything more recent than railroad and/or telegraph technology out of scope here.

  • 2
    They could always just round everyone remotely fitting the descriptions up and find the right one at leisure afterwards.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 10:02
  • In the cops shows they always ask "Any identifying marks". If you look at wanted posters for say, escaped slaves, they mention things like scars, shoe size, state of teeth etc...
    – AllInOne
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 18:09
  • "consider anything past railroad and/or telegraph technology out of scope" - clarify, please, if you need examples pre-railroads or post. Either 1800s or 1500s are out of scope in any of the cases... Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 3:41
  • 5
    You have it slightly backward; prior to the railroad, anyone who was not known was suspicious. The police could arrest anyone who didn't look familiar and question them. If you don't have sommeone to vouch for you, you're clearly a vagrant or other criminal; we merely need to find the charge to fit the suspect. I don't want to make light of the phenomenon, but prior to the railroad, everyone was guilty of "driving while black".
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 17:54
  • Yep. Like Rambo!
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 6:15

1 Answer 1


They made up rhymes, of course! See page four here for an example (Google books makes it awkward to copy and paste)


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