Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science

by Colin Beavan

Published by Hyperion

256 pages, 2001

Buy it online






At Your Fingertips

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Fingerprints are so used -- and frequently misused -- in modern crime fiction, that it's easy to forget they have been widely accepted as a means of identification and a tool in detection for less than a century. In fact, it took the particularly brutal murders of an elderly paint shop proprietor and his wife near London in 1905 to provide a case that would finally demonstrate the reliability of fingerprint evidence in distinguishing innocent parties from the guilty.

You think the history of forensic methodology sounds like a snoozer of a topic? I might once have agreed with you. Yet author Colin Beavan has succeeded in making a page-turner of Fingerprints, drawing from the once-arcane and obsessive study of those loops, whorls and arches on human digits a tale packed with fear, folly and more than a little revenge. He begins with the aforementioned 1905 homicides, which drew the attention of Detective-Inspector Charles Collins, head of Scotland Yard's new fingerprint branch. After having endured public condemnation for failing to solve several notorious murders (including those attributed to Jack the Ripper), the Yard had no intention of letting escape whoever had killed shop owner Thomas Farrow and his wife, Ann. But outside of vague descriptions of two men who allegedly left the paint shop around the time the Farrows were attacked, the only clue police had was a "dull, oval smudge" -- a right thumb print -- left on an emptied cash box in the shop. Collins was able to match that print with the thumb of Alfred Stratton, one of two inseparable brothers known to be living off prostitutes in the vicinity. Beavan writes:

The Yard had its murderers. But knowing who committed a murder is a far cry from convicting him for it, especially in a tricky case like this one. No English jury had ever been asked to send men to the gallows on the basis of what was, after all, only a smudge of sweat. Prosecution was a gamble. If the case was lost, the Yard stood to take a considerable public hammering. On the other hand, winning could lead to public acceptance of the greatest crime-fighting tool of its time. … Had thirteen hundred years of British legal history prepared the courts for one of their greatest-ever leaps into the future?

From there, Fingerprints makes a monumental digression, going back as far as the 6th century to show the sometimes oddball ways in which humankind sought to determine criminal culpability. Scalding hot water, branding irons, beatings -- all varieties of trial by ordeal were once commonplace, if horrific, determinants of guilt. Mutilation in the course of these trials was considered a damning verdict from God. While such techniques fell out of favor in the 13th century, they were replaced by equally inconclusive methods of gleaning the truth. Miscarriages of justice were frequent, and who was to change things? Law enforcement was still in its infancy as late as the early 19th century, when François-Eugène Vidocq -- a former outlaw himself -- was recruited to head France's Brigade de la Sûreté (Security Brigade), the first official detective force. While the men under Vidocq (who would provide the model for both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, as well as the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin) spent more time infiltrating criminal circles in search of information than they did solving crimes through deduction or other means, their successes at least spawned detective squads elsewhere, including one in London, which would become involved in the Farrow murders.

At the same time as Beavan recounts the evolution of law enforcement, he tells the fascinating story of interest in fingerprints. One of their earliest uses as an identification tool was in India during the mid 19th century. It seems that natives of the subcontinent commonly ignored agreements made with British occupiers in their land, going so far as to disavow contracts they had signed with the British. To keep everyone honest, a magistrate named William James Herschel demanded that the Indians affix their fingerprints to documents, with satisfying results. Meanwhile, a Scotland-born doctor named Henry Faulds, who had gone to Japan as a Protestant missionary, noticed the existence of finger impressions in ancient pottery and commenced -- first as a curiosity, later as a passion -- to study the uniqueness of individual prints. Either of these courses of research might have led quickly to the development of fingerprint science, had it not been for the conflicting work of a young, French former ne'er-do-well, Alphonse Bertillion, who created a method of identifying people based on minute body measurements. Police had long wanted some means by which to unmask career criminals who used false names when apprehended, the culprits hoping to earn lighter sentences than they might have had their recidivism been known. Bertillion's anthropometric techniques, while difficult to master, seemed to promise just such positive identifications.

By the time Thomas and Ann Farrow were slain in their Deptford shop, Bertillion's methods were on their way out, but fingerprinting remained a largely untested science. Faulds had written about his study of people's unique digital impressions, yet his credit for discoveries had been undermined by Francis Galton, the spoiled and arrogant cousin of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin. Galton's interest in fingerprints came from his conviction that certain people were genetically superior to others, and that if there was a way of discerning members of the "master race," they could be bred to improve humanity as a whole. (Adolf Hitler would later appropriate Galton's "eugenics" theories for his own monstrous uses.) While Galton soon realized that fingerprints weren't the genetic tags he had been searching for, he continued his study of those markings, categorizing them for easy recognition. In the process, he deliberately denied Faulds credit for his separate, sometimes more definitive research, creating not only a rival in Henry Faulds, but an enemy, their clash boiling over into arguments made on both sides of the trial that followed the Farrow murders.

Although the back-and-forth between competing scientists occasionally hobbles his narrative's pace, Colin Beavan -- whose writing has appeared previously in Esquire and Atlantic Monthly magazines -- has produced here a singularly captivating work. He enhances his main themes by drawing in notorious historical cases (like that of the Tichborne "Claimant"), as well as lesser-known but hardly less bizarre ones (including the misincarceration of copper-mine owner Adolf Beck) to make clear the necessity of unimpeachable identification. He employs a fictionist's skill in fleshing out his principal characters and in building suspense from the seemingly dry bones of the past. And, like the best popular historians, Beavan dispenses with a ubiquity of footnotes or annotations, allowing Fingerprints to work as a story, rather than a lesson.

Never again will you be able to look at those parallel ridges and furrows on your fingertips without recognizing the historical drama they hide. | May 2001


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.