History On Fingerprints

The history on fingerprints is an intriguing one--did you know they were used in ancient China as signatures?This piece will look at how Scotland Yard was finally convinced to use fingerprints as a method of identifying criminals, and the men that made it possible.

In the early days of police work, one of the great plagues of the professional judge was not being able to prove that a suspect, and likely convict, was a repeat offender. Society then as now frowned on the career criminal and wanted a way to be able to punish him (or her) accordingly, with a stiffer sentence. Different countries took different approaches to this problem: France took the method of branding their criminals with the fleur-di-lis symbol, as an indication that this person had offended the Crown before; Rome sometimes tattooed criminals; other countries went the route of removing the hand of a thief (although those that had merely suffered an accident might be confused with having a criminal past).

Beginning in the 1850s, some areas began photographing (or daguerrotyping) criminals as they went into prison. This method became more popular in the 1880s, with the advent of the Kodak camera, which was quicker and easier to use. However, photographs were still not foolprrof--people can drastically change their appearance, and what they do not do, time may. Nonetheless, police spent a great deal of time studying "Rogues Galleries"--thick books of photographs of known criminals in the hopes of being able to identify them in the case of similar crimes occuring near them. (There was apparently very little faith that a criminal wouldn't return to his or her illicit ways).

Other methods included the Bertillon System, developed by a French anthropologist (Alphonse Bertillon) who posited that there were specific body measurements that would not change; an example would be the length of the femur. This was a very popular method, despite the obvious problems of obtaining measurements. The system received a severe blow in 1903 in Leavenworth, Kansas. While taking the measurements of one Will West, officials found that he was indeed a repeat offender. Mr. West mightily protested this charge, and upon further examination of the records, the jailers discovered that they already had one William West in their custody, with the same Bertillon measurements. (There is still some confusion as to whether these men were related; some believe they may have been twins, others believe it was merely a fluke.)

Happily, however, another system of identification was developing--fingerprinting. Fingerprints had been used as source of identification since the T'ang Dynasty in China, and in 8th century Japan--a thumbprint could suffice for a signature on legal documents. The first crime solved using fingerprints is sometimes stated to be a murder case that occurred in ancient Rome, where a bloody handprint was later found to be the match for the killer.

Western awareness of the possibilites of fingerprinting first came to notice in 1684 with a lecture given by British doctor Nehemiah Grew, who spoke on the ridge patterns of fingerprints. Two years later, Italian physician Marcello Malpighi wrote a treatise describing the ridged patterns. (Later, a the "Malphigi" skin layer would be named in his honor). And there interest ended for over a hundred years; in 1823 Johannes Evangelist Purkinje wrote his doctoral thesis for the University of Breslaw that divided fingerprints into nine different types.

In 1858, however, fingerprinting found a firm believer in William James Herschel. It all started innocently enough. An employee of the East India Company, Herschel wanted a good way to seal a contract with a Bengali firm, and settled on using a handprint on the contract. Two years later, Herschel became a magistrate at Nuddea. One of his official duties was to make sure that not only did natives of the area receive the pensions that were due them, but to prevent as much fraud as possible. High illiteracy rates, and therefore the inability to get a signature, drastically raised the potential for fraud. Remembering the success of the handprint, Herschel began requiring pensioners to use their fingerprint as a form of signature in order to receive the money due them. Fraud avoided, and a passion born. In 1877, Herschel requested permission to try his system in a small prison in Bengal, but was refused.

Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Faulds a Scottish physician working as the Surgeon Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Japan, was also studying fingerprints, having become interested after seeing some in some ancient potterywork. In October 1880, he wrote a letter to the journal Nature describing his work with fingerprints. William Herschel wrote a letter in response for the next issue of the journal, and a feud ensued between these two pioneers.

Dr. Faulds continued his work, at one point writing Charles Darwin for his advice. Darwin instead provided Faulds with a contact to Sir Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin and noted anthropologist. Galton then began work on the problem of fingerprints as a means of identification, and of classification. In 1892 he published Fingerprints, the first book on the subject. In it he stated his belief that fingerprints were unique and unchanging, making them ideal for identification. He warned however, that they would not provide heredity or racial clues (Caucasian fingerprints could not be immediately identified as such, in other words, nor would one know that the suspect was a member of the Smith family). His basic method of classification is still in use.

The use of fingerprints during this time was somewhat stagnant. In 1893 the British Home Office set up a committee to determine the best criminal identification system for Scotland Yard to use. After consideration, they recommended the Bertillon system, but to also use fingerprinting as a complemtary means of identification. How well this worked may be seen in that Faulds offered to begin a fingerprint division at Scotland Yard at his own expense three years later (in 1896), but was rejected.



In the United States, interest was growing. Gilbert Thompson, a geologist in New Mexico used his fingerprints on documents in 1882 to prevent forgery; thinking of Herschel's work, perhaps. At any rate, Thompson thus becomes the first person to use fingerprinting in the United States.

Mark Twain also used fingerprints, but as fictional devices in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Pudd'n Head Wilson (1894).

Meanwhile, Argentine detective Juan Vucetich began his own work on fingerprinting and classification. By 1892, he solved the first criminal case to depend on the matching of fingerprints--the case of a mother who murdered her two sons. By 1912, Vucetich's method became the standard in South America.

Great Britain and most of Europe accepted the Galton-Henry system, with the exception of France, Belgium, and Egypt, who used an amalgam of the two systems. France also held on to anthropometry for the first half of the 20th century.

Edward Henry finished his system of identification and retrieval of fingerprints in 1896, to great success. The following year the Indian government made fingerprinting the official means of keeping track of criminals. In 1901, Henry becomes the head of Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Division. The four basic divisions that Henry creates are: Arches, Loops, Whorls, and Composites. Every fingerprint will fall into one of these four groups, narrowing down potential matches.

And from this point on, progress is swift, with the notable exceptions of France, Belgium and Egypt, all of whom will continue to use both the Bertillon method and fingerprinting. The New York Civil Service begins testing fingerprinting in 1902. In March, 1903 the New York State Prison system begins fingerprinting criminals (in Ossining Prison, better known as Sing Sing) and in 1904 the federal prison at Leavenworth begins to do so.(as a direct result of the Will/William West case). The US Army begins using them in 1905, and the Navy in 1906. The Marines lag behind a bit, beginning fingerprinting in 1907. In 1908, P.A. Flak of the Library Bureau Company in Chicago, designed the basic form still in use today--an 8-inch square of medium weight cardboard, with the fingerprints on it in printer's ink. Printer's ink is preferred because it rarely smudges and dries quickly.

The International Association for Chiefs of Police begins keeping extensive fingerprint files, which, in 1924 they will send to the newly created federal Identification Division of the Bureau of Investigation of the Justice Department. Nine years later they will have 5 million cards, and by 1946, 10 million. Nine year old actress Margaret O'Brien becomes number 10 million on a tour of the FBI on January 31, 1946.

After eight years of testing, the FBI created a computerized Criminal Fingerprint File in 1980. In 1983 the FBI created the National Crime Information Center, to allow for the dissemination of information about criminals between the federal and local governments. As part of this, the FBI standardized the methods of fingerprint classification, eradicating local differences in classification, and making national retrieval easier. By 1989, all fingerprints match requests were done on the computer, and the response time cut from 14 to 1 day.

Fingerprinting and identification are still key to solving criminal cases, despite the technological advances that are making DNA testing more reliable and easy to obtain. It is possible that they may one day become obsolete, as new methods supersede them, but for the forseeable future, the ends of the fingers will continue to point the way.

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