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The History of Fingerprints in Criminal Investigation
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In the late 19th century, Dr. Thomas Taylor was a straight-laced microscopist for the United States Department of Agriculture. In that role, he authored fairly predictable scientific papers such as "Improved Methods of Distinguishing between Pure and Fictitious Lard" and "Microscopic Observations on Internal Parasites in Domestic Fowls."
But in 1877, long before opining on edible mushrooms or naphthalene as an insecticide, Taylor made a startling statement to a group of fellow scientists. In an off-subject moment, he proposed that criminals could be identified by the markings on the palms of their hands, and the tips of their fingers. In fact, Taylor said, marks of bloody hands would present the most favorable opportunities for identification of murderers.
This astonishing prediction made Thomas Taylor the first American scientist to publicly propose the use of fingerprints in crime scene investigation.
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From Clouded in Mystery Publisher Stephanie Hoover:
Fingerprint impressions were first used as proof of identity in China as early as 300BC.
In 1788, German anatomist J.C.A. Mayer publicly announced his conclusion that "the arrangement of skin ridges is never duplicated in two persons."
By the late 1800s, it was an accepted fact that fingerprints offered a permanent means of identification. In other words, scientists knew that our fingerprints remain consistent from birth to death.
Yet, oddly, it took a microscopist from the Department of Agriculture to suggest to American law enforcement that handprints could identify crime suspects.
Sixteen years after Taylor's speculation, Mark Twain used fingerprints as a means of solving a murder in his story, Puddn'head Wilson. In this tragic tale, a small-town lawyer by the name of David Wilson includes among his odd hobbies that of fingerprinting the townspeople of Dawson's Landing. Twain described it thusly:
He carried in his coat pocket a shallow box with grooves in it, and in the grooves, strips of glass five inches long and three inches wide.
Along the lower edge of each strip was pasted a slip of white paper.
He asked people to pass their hands through their hair (thus collecting upon them a thin coating of the natural oil) and then make a thumb-mark on a glass strip, following it with the mark of the ball of each finger in succession.
Under this row of faint grease prints he would write a record on the strip of white paper - thus: JOHN SMITH, right hand.
As Twain tells it, David Wilson's neighbors thought that only fools would believe in such a silly thing as fingerprint records. They nicknamed lawyer Wilson "Puddn'head" - an insult reserved for the most brainless of men.
It is, of course, Wilson who gets the last laugh when his print collection becomes the star witness in court and saves an innocent man from the gallows.
While Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson was a fictional fingerprint expert, New York City police inspector Joseph Faurot was the real deal. Faurot earned a permanent place in American history by becoming the first man to successfully convince a jury that fingerprint evidence alone could be used to prove guilt.
And it all started with stolen underwear.
On February 23, 1911, M. M. Bernstein - a dealer in underclothing - arrived at his Wooster Street, Manhattan shop to find that a pane of glass in one of his shop doors had been removed. This allowed a thief to access Bernstein's storage room, and from it remove $500 worth of merchandise.
Sharp-eyed detectives noticed slight finger marks on the glass. They forwarded this evidence to Faurot who was, at the time, head of the Fingerprint Department of the New York Identification Bureau.
Faurot detected two fingerprints and two thumbprints on the glass and made a painstaking comparison between these and the 70,000 prints in his files. The search produced a match. The prints, Faurot determined, belonged to 31-year-old Charles Crispi.
Crispi was a repeat offender well known to the police. In fact, he was photo number 2515 in New York's famed Rogues Gallery. (To learn the history of Rogues Galleries, read this article at our sister site, Old Fashioned Crime.)
Although police had no other evidence or proof of Crispi's involvement in the theft, Faurot was confident in his identification. He'd found 29 similarities between the prints on the glass and Crispi's file prints. Faurot urged the district attorney to prosecute the case, and, he had a plan for how he would persuade the jury of the reliability of his testimony.
In a classic Perry Mason-style moment, while Faurot waited out in the hallway, all 12 members of the jury were fingerprinted by his assistant. One of the jurors was also asked to place a fingerprint on a piece of glass.
Faurot was then called back into the courtroom. He was given the jurors' fingerprint cards, and time to examine the glass. Within minutes, he correctly identified the juror who'd left the fingermark on the glass.
There was an audible gasp as jurors and spectators realized what they'd just witnessed.
Defendant Crispi, on the other hand, knew the jig was up. He tried to change his plea to guilty but was denied. But, because the judge recognized the importance of what had just occurred, he offered Crispi a lenient sentence of six months in exchange for describing how he'd committed the crime.
Crispi's retelling of his burglary matched Faurot's deductions.
While delivering his decision, the judge hailed this first use of fingerprints in a conviction as "a triumph for science."
After the Crispi trial, Faurot became America's premiere fingerprint expert - although some in his own department still tested him from time to time. One of his staff's favorite stunts was to present two startlingly similar lookalikes to Faurot to try to trip him up. In true Faurot fashion, he fingerprinted both men and permanently cemented their dissimilarities in his mind. He never once confused them.
Faurot was as passionate as he was confident about the value of fingerprint evidence. "Fingerprints are absolutely reliable," he once said. "The system is unique because of its simplicity and unfailing accuracy, being built upon the foundation that no two fingerprints are exactly alike - even among fingers of the same hand - verifying the axiom of nature never repeating."
Faurot firmly believed that everyone should be fingerprinted. "There should be no unknown dead," he declared.
Some years later, J. Edgar Hoover would also advocate for fingerprinting every American - although one could be excused for questioning whether his motives were as honorable as Faurot's.
By the early 1900s, the New York police department had become a cesspool of graft and corruption. Faurot became its redeemer - an honest cop in a nest of vipers. He was rewarded with several promotions, including a final bump to deputy police commissioner.
Reporters followed his every move and in one particularly expansive interview, Faurot eloquently summarized his thoughts about fingerprint technology. "A person may alter his appearance to any extent," Faurot said, "become stout or thin, grow a beard or become smooth shaven - but the one perpetual similarity in his makeup are his fingerprints. Every person carries with him ten infallible witnesses to his identity. And one print is worth all the photographs in the Rogues Gallery."
Joseph Arthur Faurot died in 1942 at the age of 70 - but his mark on the history of criminal investigation is indelible. ☁