By Olivia Judson
1 In 1905, two brothers, Alfred and Albert Stratton, were found guilty of murdering a shopkeeper and his wife in Deptford, a town outside London. The evidence? A thumbprint at the scene of the crime. The brothers were hanged.
2 The Stratton trial was the first time in Western jurisprudence that fingerprint evidence had been presented in a murder case. As such, it was a triumph for Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. Galton had spent years collecting fingerprints, studying and classifying their patterns of loops, arches, and whorls. It was he who had not just speculated, but demonstrated that fingerprints are a reliable way of telling one person from another, and persuaded the police that they could be used to solve crimes.
3 Up to that point, fingerprints had been used not as a means to identify criminals, but as a way for you to prove that you were you and not someone else. The ancient Babylonians sometimes impressed fingerprints on clay tablets that recorded business transactions, and centuries ago the Chinese made use of thumbprints on clay seals. In India in the nineteenth century, a fingerprint took the place of a signature for people who were illiterate and could not, therefore, sign their names. The first use of fingerprints by "officialdom" didn't come until the 1860s, when William Herschel, a magistrate for the British colonial administration in India, realized that fingerprints could be used as a means of identification when people came to collect their pensions. The person collecting the pension would give a print, which would be compared to a print on file; in that way, fingerprints could be used to prevent identity fraud.
4 In instituting this, Herschel made the assumption that individuals have unique fingerprints; the fact that it was actually so remained to be proved. That proof was provided by Galton, who demonstrated statistically that the odds of two people having the same fingerprints are vanishingly remote. He also – using prints sent to him by Herschel – confirmed Herschel's observation that fingerprints do not change with age, a crucial feature if they were to be a reliable form of identification. And Galton began to develop a method for cataloging fingerprints, so that police could file fingerprints by type and quickly compare any two sets. (A full-fledged cataloging system, based on Galton's, was subsequently developed by Edward Richard Henry, who had served as inspector general of police in Bengal; the fingerprint classification system came to be known as the "Henry System.") In short, Galton laid the groundwork for the police to begin to build a usable fingerprint database.
NATURAL HISTORY – December 2008/January 2009
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