14 March 2011

Crime & Law Enforcement: Fingerprinting

By: Jacquie Rogers

Fingerprinting has only been utilized for criminal identification for about the last hundred years, but the study of fingerprints has gone on for centuries. The practice was well known, and I used it in my western historical romance that will be released in July, Much Ado About Marshals.

I was teetering on the edge of anachronism and I knew it. My story takes place in 1885 and the conflict revolves around the likelihood of the criminal being identified by fingerprinting. This wasn’t a stretch because the heroine is rabid dime novel mystery reader, and in 1883, Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain featured a murderer who as identified by this method. I figured if Mark Twain could use it in 1883, I could use it in 2011.

Let’s take a brief walk through the history of fingerprint identification.

In 2011, we consider fingerprinting the most failsafe identification system for the money. Fingerprint evidence is accepted in every court worldwide, but it was not always so. Other methods of identification were used for that purpose, and fingerprinting was used for signatures and that sort of thing long before it was every considered for use in law enforcement.

People have used fingerprints for a long time—the Ancient Babylonians used them for contract signatures. There’s evidence that the builders of the Egyptian pyramids used them, and the Chinese have used fingerprints as identification on official documents since at least 300 BC.

Europeans lagged a bit, and first started looking into fingerprinting in the 1600s. In 1684, Dr. Nehemiah Grew and Professor Marcello Malpighi both wrote papers describing in detail the fingerprint ridges. The Malpighi layer of skin is named after the latter. To take fingerprint studies a step further:
“In 1823, Professor Johannes Evangelist Purkinje published the most detailed description of fingerprints to have appeared anywhere up to that time. Professor Purkinje's thesis entitled A Commentary on the Physiological Examination of the Organs of Vision and the Cutaneous System describes, with illustrations, nine fingerprint patterns classified in Latin. From his illustrations, it can be seen that the Latin classifications refer to what Henry would later name arches, tented arches, loops, wholes and twinned loops. Purkinje's research was purely anatomical, and he made no mention of individuals being identified by the patterns that he described. However, he recommended further research, and others soon took up his challenge.”

(The quote is from The Thin Blue Line)

Off we go to India where Sir William Herschel kept a record of all the handprints used to "sign" contracts after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He was also in charge of the jails and kept fingerprint records of each prisoner. Herschel was the first European to observe that all fingerprints were unique. But . . .
A Scottish doctor by the name of Henry Faulds was a contemporary of Hershel, albeit a sworn enemy, as both men tried to solidify their place in history by claiming they each were the "Father of Fingerprinting." Faulds' body of work was impressive and valuable. While working in a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, in 1874, Faulds 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.

That's from fingerprinting.com.

Faulds sent his findings to Charles Darwin (yes, that one), who sent them on to his cousin, Sir Francis Galton. He identified and classified the minutia of fingerprints in his book appropriately titled "Fingerprints," and concluded that fingerprints were unique to an individual, and stayed the same throughout a person's lifetime.

Juan Vucetich used Galton's findings for his own police work: the first to use fingerprints to solve a crime, and his method is still used by Latin American countries to this day. From wikipedia:
In 1892 Vucetich made the first positive identification of a criminal in a case where Francisca Rojas had killed her two sons and then cut her throat, trying to put the blame on the outside attacker. A bloody print identified her as the killer.
Then in 1897, British India adopted fingerprinting as the official means of criminal identification based on the work and research of Sir Edward Richard Henry. Scotland Yard adopted the Henry Classification System in 1901 and this system is still in use in English speaking countries.

Various police departments in North America began adopting this method, and by 1905, the US Army did, too. The first central repository for fingerprint records was formed in 1911 by the Dominion Police Force in Ottawa, now maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The US Congress established the identification division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1924.

Today, the Department of Homeland Security stores over 100 million prints in their AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems). The FBI has IAFIS (Integrated AFIS) where 60 million prints are stored. Fingerprints are used for identification of missing persons, murder victims, criminals, and unknown deceased persons.

While DNA testing has also been shown to be very valuable, fingerprint identification is still the most widely used tool for identification.


Fingerprint America
History of Fingerprinting
The Thin Blue Line
Sir Francis Galton
Online Digital Education Connection

Jacquie Rogers writes quirky, magical romances. Available now are her contemporary western, DOWN HOME EVER LOVIN' MULE BLUES, a multi-era faery story, FAERY SPECIAL ROMANCES, and a Christmas story, FAERY MERRY CHRISTMAS. She's co-founder of 1st Turning Point, a pay-it-forward website where authors teach, share and learn promotion and marketing.