The Science of Fingerprinting and Early Blunders

Josie Klakström

Fingerprints have been relied on by the justice system for years, but where did it start, and what happens when the science is wrong? by Melchior Damu on Unsplash

Tour any museum today and behind the glass will be ancient ceramics and pottery, off-limits to children’s sticky fingers and the wear and tear from passing spectators. But look closely and those treasures will still be adorned with fingerprints. These are from the hands that made them; the Egyptians or ancient Greeks who have left their unique mark all over those priceless possessions.

The use for fingerprints dates back to 1200 BC, where in ancient China, fingerprints were used to sign documents, rather than wet signatures. Even Babylonian king Hammurabi understood the importance of tracking fingerprints and made sure that everyone who was arrested for a crime had their prints taken, even if the forensic value wasn’t relevant at the time.

There are three types of fingerprints

Latent fingerprints can’t be seen with the naked eye and need assistance by forensic powder or chemicals.

Plastic fingerprints are when a fingerprint leaves an indentation in a softer material, like wax.

Patent fingerprints are where the skin is contaminated with a substance and the print is visible on a surface, like oil.

There is a condition called adermatoglyphia, where a person doesn’t have any kind of identifier on their fingers, toes, feet or palms, caused by the mutation of the SMARCAD1 gene, which is protein coding. Very few people have this hereditary condition and it was reported in 2011 that only five families were known to have this mutation.


In the 1820s, Czech anatomist, Jan Purkyně, was the first to recognise that fingerprints consisted of different patterns;

“After innumerable observations, I have found nine important varieties of pattern of rugae and sulci serving for touch on the palmar surface of the terminal phalanges of the fingers” — Jan Purkyně fingerprint patterns. Via Forensic Criminology by Andy Williams

These consisted of the arch, tented arch, ulna loop, radial loop, peacock’s eye/compound, spiral whorl, elliptical whorl, circular whorl, and double loop/composite.

In 1858, Sir William Herschel introduced fingerprinting in India on contracts, including pensions, to stop family members continuing to collect payments, after their relative died. Herschel recorded his own fingerprints over his lifetime to prove their permanence. contact signed with a palm print. Via

In 1880, Scottish surgeon, Henry Faulds, published the paper On the Skin-Furrows of the Hand, on the use of fingerprinting and the methodology of capturing it correctly, in the magazine, Nature. Whilst working in Japan, Faulds had noticed patterns left on prehistoric pottery, which led him to research other subjects, including monkeys;

“From these I passed to the study of the finger-tips of monkeys, and found at once that they presented very close analogies to those of human beings… Meanwhile I would venture to suggest to others more favourably situated the careful study of the lemurs, &c., in this connection, as an additional means of throwing light on their interesting genetic relations.”

He and his lecture students set about removing their fingerprints with a razor, only to see their fingers heal and the prints return. Faulds even wrote to Charles Darwin, telling him of his fingerprinting ideas, and in turn, Darwin forwarded them to his cousin, Sir Francis Galton.

Later that year, William Herschel wrote to the same magazine stating that he had been using fingerprints as a method of signatory declaration for twenty years, in India. He believed this made him the founder of the discovery, but he failed to mention the significance it would make to the forensic world. Herschel’s claims started written warfare between the two pioneers, that lasted almost 30 years. Herschel would eventually write another letter to Nature, explaining that Faulds was indeed the founder of the forensic fingerprint but by then the damage was done and Faulds would receive little recognition in the future. He even presented his ideas to Scotland Yard, who declined his offer.

In 1892, Sir Francis Galton published a book entitled Finger Prints, which gave Faulds no recognition. Henry Faulds returned to his career as a surgeon in Staffordshire, England, where he died in 1930.

Classifying prints

The Henry Classification System

The Henry Classification System is the method fingerprints are sorted. Developed by Edward Henry, Hem Chandra Bose and Azizul Haque in the late 19th century in British India, it was the method used until the 1990s.

Fingers on each hand are given an identifying number. Starting with the right thumb, fingers on the right hand are numbered from one to 5. On the left hand, starting from the thumb, they are numbered 6 to 10. For example, the right ring finger is number 4 and the left middle finger is number 8.
Classification is based on the exact finger and print design. Each finger is given value only if it has a whorl design. If the finger has an arch or loop, it is given a value of zero. Not all fingers are given the same value if they have a whorl. The following chart indicates the value a finger is given if it has a whorl design. Remember that whorls include plain, central pockets, double loops and accidentals. — Description from Henry Classification System — example. Via

The Bertillon System

Another method of identification was the Bertillon System, which measured body parts that were recorded on an identity card. Created by French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, it included measurements such as sitting height and distance between fingertips. This method was used for years before fingerprinting was discovered and was soon displaced, but not before it was deemed unusable.

In 1903, Will West was handed a prison sentence for a minor crime and was taken to Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. Once there it was realised that another inmate already had a Bertillon card with almost the exact same measurements and looked very similar to Will West. He was in prison for murder and his name was William West. Will West, bottom: William West

The similarities of the two men were uncanny, and the only way to tell the men apart was to conduct a fingerprint and face examination. After this, many authorities began to use the fingerprint identification method over the Bertillon System.

Fingerprints and the law

The first U.S criminal trial to use fingerprinting as evidence began in 1910. On the 19th September, Thomas Jennings broke into the Hiller residence in Chicago. It was likely that he was trying to rob the family, as there had been several burglaries in the area. The husband, Clarence Hiller, fought the intruder until Jennings shot Clarence, and left him dying by his front door. Jennings was caught half a mile down the road, carrying a gun and wearing a bloodied overcoat. He had also left his fingerprint on a newly painted rail outside the window he used to gain access to the property. Police photographed the print and removed the railing for further processing. Jennings, 1910. Via Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum

In an effort to push for a mistrial, Jennings’ defence team fingerprinted members of the public to disprove the theory that no fingerprint was the same. Their findings were conclusive; all the fingerprints taken were different. The defence lawyer also challenged the prosecution’s expert, William M. Evans, to lift his print from a piece of paper. Evans successfully pulled the print, and the jury soon found the defendant guilty of the murder of Clarence Hiller. Thomas Jennings was hanged on the 16th February 1912.

Removal of fingerprints

In 1934, John Dillinger was trying to escape arrest and needed to change his appearance. Whilst hiding in Chicago, his lawyer introduced him to German physician, Wilhelm Loeser, who agreed to change his face and mutilate his fingertips for $5,000 (around $96,000 in 2020). Dillinger was caught soon after and shot dead by police in pursuit. His fingerprints were visible during his autopsy. Dillinger’s fingerprints, taken post-mortem. Via

The same year, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis visited Joseph Moran, a mob doctor, for the same finger procedure to avoid forensics. The surgery was deemed successful, leaving only small ridges behind, although Karpis was eventually caught, allegedly by J. Edgar Hoover, in New Orleans. The issue came when Karpis was deported to Canada after his release from prison, when his fingerprints were needed for the application. Karpis’ hands. Via

Identifying the dead

Many bodies have been identified by fingerprinting, but most notably, in 1947, the power of fingerprints was recognised in the murder case of the Black Dahlia. No one had reported Elizabeth Short missing, so when her body was found, naked and without ID, the police needed to identify her. Short’s mugshot. Via

The L.A.P.D borrowed a newspaper’s Soundphoto — an early fax machine — and sent her fingerprints to the enormous fingerprint division of the FBI, the DC Armory. Despite having over 100 million fingerprints on record, that were manually searched through, a match for Elizabeth Short was found in 56 minutes. Fingerprinting Warehouse 1939–1953. Via

The Identification Division began during World War II, to clear personnel for armed services and to gather intelligence on spies and turncoats. The building still stands and is now an arena and an ice rink. system at the DC Armory. Via

However, because fingerprints have been used reliably by the justice system for years, it’s difficult to prove innocence.

When the science is wrong

In 1997, an English policewoman named Shirley McKie was charged with perjury when her thumbprint was allegedly found at a crime scene. Marion Ross has been stabbed multiple times during a presumed home invasion. A fingerprint was found in the home and was identified as McKie’s, despite her having never visited the victim’s house.

The Scottish Criminal Record Office had four fingerprint experts, all of who testified that the print belonged to McKie, despite her arguing her innocence. McKie’s lawyers brought in Pat Wertheim and David Grieve, American fingerprint experts who disagreed with the defence’s findings. McKie was later acquitted before she spent any time in prison. Later on, a Scottish member of parliament, Michael Russell asked experts from around the world to validate Wertheim and Grieve’s findings. 171 certifications from 18 countries agreed that the thumbprint did not belong to Shirley McKie.

Fingerprints are a large part of criminal justice; they’ve solved historic cold cases, put notorious serial killers behind bars, but they have also ensured that people are cleared of crimes they did not commit.

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