A Short Discussion of Fingerprinting

Fingerprinting goes all the way back to ancient Babylonia, where business people pressed the tips of their fingertips into clay to record transactions. Fast forward to the third century BC, when the Chinese began using ink-on-paper finger impressions for business dealings and to help identify their children. This eventually spread to Japan, many years before Europe caught up.

These early methods lacked today’s sophistication, however, and were used solely to identify the signers of the various documents. It wasn’t until 1686 that a professor at the University of Bologna, in Italy, noticed that fingerprints had common patterns, such as loops, whorls, arches, and ridges. This was rather interesting to the good professor, but he still couldn’t find a practical use for it. Meantime, 137 years later, another professor discovered nine different fingerprint patterns. Again, he thought it was interesting, but had no further use for the discovery.

It wasn’t until 1858 that fingerprints began to come into their own. An English administrator named Sir William Hershel (1833-1917) was assigned to the jurisdiction of Hooghly near Calcutta, India, and was immediately concerned about the residents of Hooghly getting their proper pensions. He was also worried about establishing his expertise in court proceedings regarding business dealings with the Government. So, in 1858, he had a construction builder put a print of his palm and fingers on an official business transaction form since the builder could neither read nor write. For all intents and purposes, this became the first documented application of fingerprints. Hershel also had jurisdiction over the jails, and he systematically fingerprinted the inmates and kept records of all fingerprints on file.

In 1874, a Scottish doctor by the name of Henry Faulds (1843-1930,) while working in a hospital in Tokyo kept records of fingerprints and concluded that fingerprint patterns were unchangeable and immutable and that the technique of rendering a set of fingerprints could best be done with printer’s ink on a smooth board. Faulds was also able to lift a fingerprint from a bottle of whiskey, and thus received credit for the first identification of a fingerprint, as well as claiming the title of “Father of Fingerprinting.”

The first evidence of the use of fingerprints in the United States was by a surveyor in New Mexico by the name of Gilbert Thompson who, in 1882, put his own prints on a survey to prevent forgery. The first recorded use of fingerprint identification in a criminal matter dates back to 1892 when an Argentinean Police Commodore by the name of Juan Vucetich (1858-1925) took prints off a door post to nail a murderer. The use of fingerprint identification as a means of solving criminal cases advanced quickly as both Scotland Yard and the U.S.A. implemented the use of fingerprints by the turn of the 20th Century.

The first case in England solved by fingerprint evidence was the dual murders of Thomas and Ann Farrow in 1905.

The neighbors of Thomas and Ann Farrow, paint shop owners in South London, discover their badly bludgeoned bodies in their home. Since the cash box in which the Farrow’s stored their receipts was empty, it was clear to Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Charles Collins that robbery was the motive for the crime. He employed the still-new science of fingerprinting to the cashbox, and discovered a print that didn’t match either of the victims or any of the still-tiny file of criminal prints that Scotland Yard possessed.

Fortunately, a local milkman reported seeing two young men in the vicinity of the Farrow house on the day of the murders, eventually identified as brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton. A week later, authorities finally caught up with the Stratton brothers and fingerprinted them. Alfred’s right thumb was a perfect match for the print on the Farrow’s cash box.

The fingerprint evidence was the prosecution’s only solid evidence. The defense put up expert Dr. John Garson to attack the reliability of the fingerprint evidence, figuring that he would be more believable since he was Insp. Collins’ former teacher. But the prosecution countered with evidence that Garson had written to both the defense and prosecution on the same day offering his services to both.

The Stratton brothers, obviously not helped by the discrediting of Garson, were convicted and hanged on May 23, 1905.

The first crime in the United States solved by fingerprinting techniques occurred in 1910 when a man by the name of Thomas Jennings was convicted of sexual assault and murder. He was hanged in 1912.

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