At first, forensic artists mostly just did courtroom drawings of criminals to be published in newspapers for reader titillation. Then they helped with diagrams of crime scenes, to aid in reconstructing what happened. Soon they were offering a way to render a suspect's appearance from eyewitness descriptions. A detailed history can be found in Forensic Art and Illustration.
Dr. Alphonse Bertillon is credited with the first formal system of criminal identification. Believing that careful records kept on file could help to predict recidivism rates among known criminals, he devised a system of measurements of the face and body. Prior to fingerprinting, this proved to be the best system of individual identification. His 1896 book on anthropometry included illustrations that provided a basis for what facial identification artists would do in the future on criminal cases.
An early drawing to help capture a fugitive was done in the case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. When his wife disappeared one day in 1910, Crippen claimed that she had left their home in London to join another man in America. However, his young secretary soon moved in and began to wear the former Mrs. Crippen's clothing and jewelry. When a Scotland Yard inspector questioned Crippen, he fled, leaving his house vulnerable to a search that turned up Mrs. Crippen's buried remains. Based on old photos, a police artist developed a sketch to help identify the man. Crippen was soon apprehended and returned to England for trial. He was hanged for his crime.
In 1935, when two decomposing heads and numerous cut up body parts were found in England near the Scottish border in 1935, police suspected they had been cut off a woman named Isabella Ruxton, who had disappeared with her maid two weeks earlier. Artists enlarged a photo of her to superimpose over the negative produced from a photo of one of the skulls, and she was positively identified. Her husband was found guilty of murder and hanged.
A composite sketch was devised for the Sheppard murder case in 1954. Dr. Sam Sheppard claimed that an intruder had beaten his wife to death in their home. Police used descriptions from neighbors who had seen a man near the Sheppard home that day to come up with a depiction of a man with a long crewcut (not quite the bushy-haired man that Sheppard had described). Although Sheppard was initially convicted, he won a new trial in which he was acquitted and the case remains unsolved.
It was during the 1950s that the system of building a composite facial drawing from multiple witnesses became a standard procedure, and it led to a commercially available kit known as the Identi-KIT. The first one included clear stackable sheets called "foils" that depicted numerous different types of hand-drawn facial features. A witness could pick from many styles of hairlines, eyeglasses, mouths, noses, eyes, cheekbones, ears, and eyebrows, which would all be laid on top of one another to get a full picture of a face. There were also beards and mustaches, as well as chin shapes. The witness could look at the composite and ask for a hairline to be lowered or lips thickened, and a different foil could be substituted.
Later kits used photographs of features, but followed the same general principle. The foils were coded so that they could be sent to other police departments that had Identi-KITs and composites quickly developed in other jurisdictions. (In Canada, they used seven facial masks believed to represent all variations on the human face.)
The Identi-KIT helped in the apprehension of one of the early serial killers, Harvey Glatman. In Los Angeles in the 1950s, he posed as a magazine photographer, luring young women hoping to become models out to the desert, where he shackled them so he could then rape and strangle them. However, the roommate of his first victim described him to police in sufficient detail that a police officer using the kit came up with a striking likeness. Nevertheless, two more women were killed until a fourth potential victim managed to turn Glatman's own gun on him and hold him at bay until a highway patrol officer stopped to assist. His victims were found buried in the desert and he was executed. Since the picture looked so much like him, that proved to be a success story for the kit, and in many jurisdictions its use quickly replaced the hand-drawn suspect sketch (with the exception of the FBI).
Even so, it was a composite drawing for the Chicago Police Department that brought down mass murderer Richard Speck. On July 14, 1966, he'd entered the residence of nine student nurses, armed with a gun and knife. As he systematically raped and killed eight of them, one managed to hide from his brutal embrace. After he left, she called for help and was able to give an accurate description of the killer. This sketch was circulated, and an ER doctor who treated Speck for self-inflicted wounds recognized him from the sketch.
By the 1970s, police artists were moving away from using the kits and back toward composite drawings, based on interviewing witnesses and/or victims. Yet Identi-KIT held on, and the Identi-Kit 2000 is a computerized version of the composite approach to suspect identification. In this version, witnesses are shown a whole face within the basic group that matches their description, not separate images of facial parts. They then point out the features that aren't quite right, and the artist can make adjustments from the extensive feature database. With the computer edit program, the artist can move, scale, shade, paint, draw, erase, and add or remove any feature. Once finished, the composite can be sent to other agencies via computer.
Even with all the computer sophistication available, there are still forensic artists who trust to the sketch. Jeanne Boylan claims to have a very specific way of rendering the faces of criminals from eyewitness reports.