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How Fingerprinting Came to Be a Crime-Solving Tool

A new book finally credits Henry Faulds back in 1880 with using fingertips to establish a person's identity.


Faulds was a pioneer in that work, too, though once again his work was appropriated without credit by Galton, who published a classification system in his 1892 book, "Finger Prints." He and Faulds would bicker in print over provenance of their work for the rest of their days, with Faulds never getting the upper hand.

Galton's only comeuppance would come from Edward Henry, who, appropriately, was an even more brazen intellectual thief. Henry, who had worked in India, trumped Galton by presenting a superior fingerprint classification system at an 1899 meeting of the British Assn. for the Advancement of Science, a system later adopted by Scotland Yard. Henry stole the system in its entirety from Azizul Haque, one of his assistants in India.

But it wasn't until later that fingerprinting began to be used as a crime-solving technique, a bit of evidence which, if recovered, could place a suspect at the scene of the crime. And in 1905 came the case that would prove to be the acid test.

It was the murder of Thomas and Ann Farrow in a paint store, where they lived upstairs, just outside London. One of the suspects had left a clear fingerprint on a cash box looted at the scene.

Beavan builds his book around that case, which was notable not only because it was the first murder conviction won on the basis of fingerprint evidence, but also because it drew several of fingerprinting's pioneers to the witness stand.

Henry testified for the prosecution. Faulds, perhaps with the bitterness of a jilted lover, testified for the defense, saying that one print alone wasn't sufficient for identification. With the "experts" in disagreement, Beavan writes, the jurors relied instead on "what they had seen with their own eyes."

Deciding that the fingerprints looked like a match, they voted for conviction. Nowadays, just as a new form of scientific identification--DNA profiling, based on an individual's unique genetic makeup--is taking hold, some critics question the way fingerprints have been used over the years.

Another new book on the topic, "Suspect Identities," by Simon A. Cole, questions whether fingerprinting is science at all, especially as long as it remains in the hands of police. In fact, for readers seeking a scholarly and more thorough treatment of the subject, Cole's book is the one--100 pages longer, fully footnoted.

Not that Beavan didn't do his homework. Research took the New Yorker to, among other places, the Scottish National Library, the British National Library, the Bancroft Library at the University of California, the library of the University of Texas, the Galton Archives at University College London, the FBI Academy Library and the New York Public Library.

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