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The History of Fingerprinting

Fingerprint

The double murder of Shepparton teenagers, Garry Heywood and Abina Madill left Victoria police stumped in 1966. It was one small, unidentified fingerprint on Garry’s car which would later piece together the terrifying world of serial killer and sexual predator “Mr Stinky”. Without fingerprinting, he would almost certainly have gone on to destroy more lives and could even be walking free today. Season 3's finale of Crimes That Shook Australia reexamines the case and the part fingerprinting played in bringing this serial rapist to justice.

But what is the history of fingerprints – this forensic staple, which we now take for granted?

Ancient Beginnings, China and Babylon

As far back as the second millennium, Babylonian law officers took the fingerprints of people they arrested. They were also a kind of signature; King Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) used finger seals on contracts.

From the third century BC – and perhaps earlier – China used inked fingerprints on all official documents and as a means of identification in court proceedings. It is a point of contention whether they understood fingerprints’ unique nature, or if these were purely symbolic customs.

In Ancient Rome, a bloody palm print at a crime scene brought a killer to justice – it was perhaps the first successful use of dactylography – the study of fingerprints – to solve crime.

The science of fingerprinting, 19th century

Sir William Herschel, An English magistrate in Jungipoor, India, used handprints as a kind of signature in all contracts from 1858 onwards. After experimenting, he realised the whole hand was not necessary and fingerprints were enough, and he spearheaded the creation of a finger register in the region.

Scottish doctor, Henry Faulds, grew increasingly interested in fingerprints during his work as a medical missionary in Japan, in the 1870s, and even contacted Charles Darwin about the subject. His breakthrough paper was published in “Nature” in 1880 and became hugely influential.

Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer and biometrics researcher, created a formula for categorising convicted criminals, using measurements of their body parts, in 1882. The “Bertillon System” went on to become the standardised system across Europe and America.

 Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, published the first book on fingerprints, identifying their unique nature, in 1892.

Fingerprints Catch Criminals in South America, 1890s

Juan Vucetich, an Argentine police official, rejected the Bertillon system and began developing an alternative system of fingerprint identification, in 1891. A year later, fingerprinting exposed a woman who had murdered her own sons and made elaborate efforts to cover her tracks. Vucetich went on to refine the system he called “comparative dactyloscopy”, and it quickly spread across the Spanish-speaking world.

National Bureau of Criminal Identification (NBCI), USA, 1896

The NCBI, was established in Chicago 1896 (later moved to Washington), as a central database of information about criminals – including their fingerprints – used by police forces nationwide. 

Fingerprinting is Adopted in the UK, Australia and the USA

Sir Edward Henry, an Inspector General of Police in Bengal, India, developed a fingerprint classification system in 1901. The Henry Classification System was used in criminal investigations throughout British India and England adopted the system in 1902. Fingerprints solved the famous Stratton Brothers case in England in 1905.

Meanwhile, New South Wales Police, Australia also adopting fingerprint analysis in 1903.  

In the same year, convicted criminal Will West threw a spanner in the works of the Bertillon system, in America. Upon his arrival at Leavenworth Prison, Kansas, it was quickly observed that fellow inmate William West, who looked remarkable like Will, also had identical Bertillon measurements. An individual’s Bertillon measurements were not, by their nature, unique. Fingerprints, on the other hand, are so stubbornly anomalous that even identical twins’ prints are not the same.

Fingerprinting replaced Bertillon in American prisons. The US Military adopted fingerprinting in 1905, and the nation’s police agencies soon followed.

They were recognised by US courts as a reliable means of identification in 1911, when Thomas Jennings became America’s first person to be convicted of murder on the strength of fingerprints.

The FBI formed its of ID Division in 1924, further centralising law enforcement’s access to fingerprints. Records from the NBCI and Leavenworth Prison were consolidated to form one central database for the FBI, including 810,188 fingerprint records.

Fingerprints go digital

The first computer databases of fingerprints were developed in the early 1980s following research initiatives across Japan, the UK, France and the US. These systems came to be known as Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS).

Australia’s National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS), was not established until 1986, the year after Mr Stinky was finally caught. He could, therefore, have proved harder to apprehend, if his crimes been more geographically dispersed. Without a digitalised system, it also took a lot of patient detective work by Victoria Police’s then-fingerprint expert, Andrew Wall.

The FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), established in 1999, created a national automated fingerprint database, complete with all criminal history connected to each entry. The implications were huge. Today there are over 100 million subjects on the database. These include not only criminals, but also anyone who has been background checked for matters like firearm ownership or employment checks, and also suspected terrorists.

As well as familiar concerns around invasions of privacy, digital fingerprinting systems are not infallible, and experts have advised caution.

Brandon Mayfield, an American lawyer, was wrongly identified by four fingerprint experts in Madrid’s 2004 train bombing. He was detained for two weeks, until the prints’ real owner, Ouhnane Daoud, was identified.

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