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A Brief History of Fingerprints

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The science of fingerprint identification, or dactylography, began nearly 4,000 years ago in the “Fertile Crescent,” the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present day Iraq. King Hammurabi (1955-1913 BC) used finger seals on contracts and law officers of the day were authorized to secure fingerprints of arrested persons.

 

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A Brief History of Fingerprints

The science of fingerprint identification, or dactylography, began nearly 4,000 years ago in the “Fertile Crescent,” the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present day Iraq. King Hammurabi (1955-1913 BC) used finger seals on contracts and law officers of the day were authorized to secure fingerprints of arrested persons.

Little is known as to how the fingerprints were used. If actual point-to-point comparisons were made, people of that day surely had exceptional eyesight —since optical magnifiers weren’t invented until several millennia later.

In AD 650, nearly 600 years before Marco Polo visited “Cathay,” Chinese historian Kia Kung-Yen wrote of fingerprints used in an older method of preparing contracts. The law book of Yung-Hwui of the same period listed that the husband in a divorce decree had to sign the document with his fingerprint.

In AD 1100, Chinese novelist Shi-Naingan wrote in his book, The Story of the River Bank, “He compelled them to ink their fingers to record their fingerprints.”

In the late 1700’s, a German doctor, J.C.A. Mayer, reported that fingerprints are never duplicated by nature. A very astute observation — but Dr. Mayer left it at that.

Decades later, a student publishing his doctoral thesis in 1823 described fingerprint types and classified them into nine major groups. But author Johannes E. Purkinje gave them no identification value.

Most historians credit Sir William Herschal with being the first person to definitely use fingerprints for identification purposes. While working for the East India Company in Bengal, India, Herschal had natives place their palm prints on contracts and receipts. In 1858, when he began the practice, the idea was probably based on superstition; but Herschal quickly saw the value of fingerprints as a positive form of identification.

The first person given credit for using fingerprints to solve a crime is Henry Faulds. Faulds wrote in Nature magazine that when bloody finger marks or impressions on clay, glass, etc. exist, they may lead to the scientific identification of criminals. Faulds’ “chance impression” resolved a case of “…theft of rectified spirit.”

Up to this time, no unified system of physical identification existed beyond a general description of age, weight, marks, scars and so forth. Alphonse Bertillon, a French anthropologist, changed all that by introducing his system of “Anthropometry,” which consisted of exact measurements of various parts of the body (upper and lower arm, head, legs, etc.) A year later, in 1883, The Bertillon experiments were given permanent status and most countries in the Western world adopted the system.

In 1888, Sir Francis Galton, a noted British scientist, prepared a talk for the Royal Institute on Bertillon’s system, which kindled his interest in fingerprints. His research led to a meeting with Herschal and he built his knowledge from Herschal’s material. Galton went on to devise a classification system and he defined various points of identification in a fingerprint — known as “Galton Details,” or fingerprint minutiae.

Considerable progress was being made on this side of the Atlantic, too. Juan Vucetich set up Bertillon’s system for the LaPlatta, Argentina, police in 1891. This same year, he developed a classification system and began filing fingerprint records accordingly. The Vucetich System is still in use in many Spanish-speaking countries.

Also in 1891 Sir Edward Richard Henry, Inspector General of Police in Bengal, India, experimented with Herschal’s fingerprint system. He then visited Galton and later developed his own classification system. A modified form of the Henry System is the basis for fingerprint classification and filing throughout much of the world today.

Henry eventually joined the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) where he first set up the Bertillon system (in 1894), and later he initiated his fingerprint identification methods. In 1918 Henry was dismissed from the job following accusations of “oppression and injustice.”

More fingerprint work in South America led to the solution of a homicide using fingerprint evidence — the first such case in recorded history. Police Inspector Alvarez of LaPlatta, Argentina, solved the “Rojas Murder Case” with a bloody fingerprint found on a door. In 1896, anthropometry was abandoned in Argentina in favor of fingerprint identification.

The use of fingerprint identification in the United States was slow to develop. Most identification bureaus were locked into the Bertillon system until the now-famous Will West case at Leavenworth prison. When Will West arrived to serve his sentence in 1903, identification personnel insisted that he had been an inmate before. After being subjected to the Bertillon measurements, officials found the file of one William West, whose measurements were virtually identical to the person calling himself Will West. Even their photographs showed a remarkable resemblance.

But William West was still in prison serving a murder sentence. Their respective fingerprints were taken, compared, and they bore no resemblance. This unique case established the value of fingerprint identification in this country.

It is interesting to note that later research indicates that Will and William West were most likely monozygote (identical) twins who were separated at a young age.

In 1904 the St. Louis, Missouri, Police Department was the first agency to set up a fingerprint bureau. Meanwhile, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) had established a central fingerprint file in Chicago. The complete file of some 810,000 records was turned over to the newly formed Identification Division of the F.B.I. Today the F.B.I. files contain several hundred million record cards.

Advances in the state-of-the-art have led to computerization of fingerprint record files. Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (A.F.I.S.) are in operation in many parts of the country. A.F.I.S. not only stores record cards in computer memory, it will match latent fingerprints from crime scenes to its data bank. A well-known example of the speed of an A.F.I.S. at work was in California.

A latent fingerprint was entered into the system, and less than four minutes later the print was matched, and a killer who had eluded police for six years was identified and shortly apprehended. 

Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character by which he can always be identified and that without shade of doubt or question these marks are his signature…and this autograph cannot be counterfeited, nor can he disguise it or hide it away. This ‘signature’ is each man’s very own — there is no duplicate of it among the swarming populations of the globe. This autograph consists of the delicate lines or corrugations with which Nature marks the insides of the hands and the soles of the feet.

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain, 1894

BASIC FINGERPRINT PATTERNS

PlainArches 

Plain Arches

Tented Arches

Tented Arches

 

Loops

Loops

Plain Whorls

  Plain Whorls

Double Loop Whorls

  Double Loop Whorls

Central Pocket Loop Whorls

  Central Pocket Loop Whorls

 

 Accidental Whorls

Accidental Whorls

 

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