Fingerprints 103: Mark Twain’s Prescience and Crime’s Penmen

Mark Twain
Mark Twain: Foreteller of Fingerprinting?
The first American writer to use fingerprints in solving crime was the famous Mark Twain in his perhaps-embellished memoir about life as a steamboat pilot, titled Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883. In chapter 31, “A Thumb-print and What Came of It,” he has a character, inspired by an old “French prison-keeper” use a fingerprint to detect and prove a murderer’s identity ten years ahead of its adoption by the world-at-large.

The first real-life crime solved using fingerprints was in Argentina in 1892 by detective Juan Vucetich, who began creating files of Galton print patterns, and even Bertillon measurements.  He confronted a murderess with her fingerprint, and she confessed.

(See Fingerprints 101 and Fingerprints 102 for more about the initial discoveries of “Galton’s details” and Bertillon’s Anthropometry.)

In 1893, Twain wrote another, serialized story for The Century Magazine, called “Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins.”  In this story, a young lawyer, David Wilson, is nicknamed Pudd’nhead and has a silly preoccupation with collecting everyone’s fingerprints on glass slides. Twain’s prescience with this forensic methodology rivals Jules Verne’s, who, in 1865, predicted man’s trips to the moon using a rocket ship.

(I am not sure what Verne was smoking other than a pipe when he wrote these adventures, but insanity did run in his family. In March of 1886, Verne was shot in the leg by his 25 year-old nephew during an attempted assassination. The nephew spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Verne limped and wrote on till March 1905. This proves the pen is mightier than the bullet. At least, if you’re crazy enough to stand still, while being shot at.)

Among modern historical mysteries, we can look at Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, set in 1896. The characters within the novel have been trained in Bertillonage, but are trying to use newer methods such as fingerprinting and psychology to solve crimes.

Arthur Conan Doyle first had his detective Sherlock Holmes use a bloody thumbprint as evidence in the short story “The Norwood Builder,” published in The Strand Magazine during 1903.  Sherlock Holmes rarely used fingerprints as an important clue, and yet we see him with that damn magnifying glass and the deer slayer’s hat all the time. Probably high on cocaine looking for his violin.  In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Holmes is described as the second highest authority on crime in Europe, second only to the equally-eccentric Alphonse Bertillon. Poor Holmes. During “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes admires Bertillon’s system of measurements. The great detective was surely more of a Bertillon Anthropometry disciple than a Galton’s details man.

By 1903, Bertillon himself had recognized the value of fingerprints, and created a better method to remove them from smooth surfaces, and just in time, it seems. In the 1906 story “The Escape of Arsène Lupin” by Maurice Leblanc, published as part of a magazine serial in Je Sais Tout, the gentleman thief and frequent, fictional adversary of Sherlock Holmes (called Herlock Sholmes after Conan Doyle objected), escapes from prison by capitalizing on the inherent defects in Anthropometric identification.

One last wry note concerning Alphonse Bertillon: when he realized that fingerprints differentiated humans more accurately than Anthropometry, he decided to add the finger and palm prints of one hand of each criminal to his own collection of files. However, in a famous case the criminal could not be identified from the palm print he left at the scene. It had been made by the hand not recorded.

So, the best I can say about Bertillon is to leave him with a left-handed compliment, the one he forgot to print. We have to hand it to him—his place in the history of forensics is safe.  As for Twain, Life on the Mississippi‘s place on a reading list ruined a full month of my high-school summer vacation, cheating me out of daylight time on the ball. Twain is no friend of mine.


Dr. Lewis Preschel aka TheMadMutt. Wouldn’t you be Mad too?

Comments

  1. Robert K. Lewis

    This was very fun and informative. Thanks!

    And man, I LOVE The Alienist. A seriously great book. Tons of enjoyment between those pages.

    I know someone who cannot be fingerprinted as her ridges are SO low, the prints come out big, black smudges. I wonder how many other people are like that?

  2. WTT

    I always look forward to your posts! So punchy and full of information!!

  3. g

    Interesting post!

  4. jill preschel

    So interesting , I didn’t know Mark Twain was the first author to use fingerprints !! Wow!!

  5. Dr. Georg Ramsauer

    Very informative! I am a private investigator and very interested in the history of criminalistics

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