Get A Clue: A Brief History of Fingerprints in the 19th Century

You’ve probably watched one of the many “forensic” shows that fill our TV screens. In the course of an hour, our amazing forensic scientists track down the perpetrator using all sorts of whizz-bang machines that go beep. One of these is invariably going to be the “fingerprint” matching computer program.

You know the conversation…

“We’ve only got a partial but…” <Machine goes whirr> “Grissom, we have a match.”

Yes, we take the science of fingerprinting for granted these days, but at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was a scientific breakthrough in crime detection that was as revolutionary as the use of DNA later in the century.

Transport yourself back to mid-nineteenth century London, an overcrowded city rife with crime of the worst kind. Detection was hit and miss… basically, unless there were witnesses and/or a criminal was recognized by the arresting officer and/or caught red-handed, there was no saying that he or she had committed the crime of which they were accused.

The nineteenth century was a time of huge technological advances. In the 1870s, a Scottish physician (Henry Faulds) working as a missionary in Japan wrote a paper to Charles Darwin observing that, in studying shards of pottery, he had noticed a variance in the potter’s fingerprints. Using his colleagues’ fingerprints, he solved a theft of alcohol from the local hospital. Being a good scientist, he went so far as to scrape off the tips of his fingers to prove that fingerprints did not change when the skin grew back.

Of course, like any nineteenth-century scientist, he developed a rivalry with Sir William Herschel, a British civil servant in India who had been using fingerprints for identification since the 1850s.

Following the publication of Fauld’s findings in the scientific journal Nature, Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton expanded on the study of fingerprints and, in 1892, published a book imaginatively titled “Fingerprints”. He identified and classified fingerprints, calculating that the odds of two fingerprints being the same was 1:64 billion. Elements of his system—the Galton details—are still in use today.

But it was the work of two Indian fingerprint (Aziz Haque and Hem Chandra Bose), working under their supervisor E.R. Henry in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau (later Fingerprint Bureau), who fine-tuned what became known as the Henry system of classification of fingerprints in the 1890s. In 1900, Henry published a book: Classification and Uses of Fingerprints. In 1901, as Assistant Commissioner in Scotland Yard, Henry set up the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau.

On March 27, 1905 (when my fictional Inspector Robert Curran would have been working with Scotland Yard), the bodies of an elderly couple, Thomas and Ann Farrow, were found bludgeoned to death in their residence above their paint shop. There was no sign of forced entry, but the cash box was empty, and there was evidence that two individuals had been involved in the assault.

The cashbox and its bloody fingerprint.

The fledgling Fingerprint Bureau found a smudgy fingerprint on the underside of the cash tin. A “vagabond” identified as Alfred Stratton was recognized as leaving the crime scene, and he and his brother Albert were arrested. The fingerprint on the cash box was identified as belonging to Alfred Stratton. The fingerprint evidence was sorely tested at trial, but in the end, the Stratton brothers were convicted and hanged… the first murderers in the U.K. to be convicted on fingerprint evidence.

Singapore was not far behind England, with a Fingerprint Bureau established in 1903. Following a study visit to Scotland Yard in 1904, W.L. Conlay (later to become Commissioner of the Federated Malay States—watch for him in future Harriet Mysteries) studied the Henry system and simplified the system for use in his own jurisdiction. This involved photographing suspects and relating the fingerprints to the photographs. In 1909, Singapore’s criminal records were merged with the rest of the Straits Settlements and stored centrally in Kuala Lumpur. By 1940, these records numbered 300,000.

So it is that in 1910, when Singapore Sapphire is set, my fictional Detective Branch of the Straits Settlements Police had access to the latest and best aids to criminal investigation—a combination of photography and fingerprinting.

Policing Singapore in the 19th and 20th centuries (Peer M. Akbur)
Fingerprints and Fingerprinting A Historical Study (C.J. Polson)       
Suspect Identities A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (S.A. Cole)

Learn More Or Order A Copy