The Visual Culture of Identification and the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster


  • Vicki Daniel Case Western Reserve University


disaster victim identification, disaster, forensic odontology, forensic authority, visual culture, California


This article analyzes the case study of the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster in Southern California in order to understand how disaster victim identification evolved in the United States from the early practice of sight recognition to the paradigm of forensics. Occurring in a transitional moment in the history of disaster victim identification (DVI)—between the advent of forensic identification techniques and their full-scale application in the disaster morgue—this case study reveals how bureaucratic practices originally intended to manage sight recognition evolved into more interventionist practices that extended and enhanced sight recognition. The use of photography and dental identifications allowed Ventura County officials—and specifically, Coroner Oliver Reardon—to create, control, and circulate a new visual culture of identification. Command of this visual culture not only demonstrated the state’s power to overcome the biological problem of decomposition and move identification beyond the traditional boundaries of sight recognition, but also allowed state officials to assert a more central role in the identification process, foreshadowing the expert-driven forensic paradigm that would emerge in the U.S. in the 1940s.