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

By Jodie L. Ball

Don’t let this slim volume fool you--of the 232 pages, 203 are text; the remaining 29 pages include the author’s source notes, bibliography, and a brief index. With seventeen pages of sources, it’s evident Beavan did his homework.

Fingerprint opens with a fiction-like recounting of the double murder that first used fingerprint technology. Though Beavan does use standard, non-fiction writing techniques, he liberally sprinkles in more fiction-like anecdotes.

While Beavan goes into detail--sometimes more detail than is warranted--he manages to entertain while informing.

Fingerprinting and the classification of fingerprints dates back to 1858 when William Herschel began experimenting with fingerprints. Yet it wasn’t implemented as evidence in crime detection until the British adopted fingerprint classification in 1901. By 1904, the United States caught the bug and began a fingerprint collection of their own.

Prior to 1901, “eye witness” testimony was the only requirement for convicting and sentencing someone. And the punishments were severe, frequently resulting in death. Whether the guilty was a first time offender or a habitual criminal had no bearing on his sentencing.

Finally, in 1869, England adopted the Habitual Criminals Act whereby instituting harsher sentences for the recidivist. With the adoption of this Act came jails. The street-side tortures and hangings eventually subsided.

Then in 1904, Thomas and Ann Forrow were murdered in their Deptford (England) paint store. Thanks to a fingerprint found on a metal cash box, Alfred and Albert Stratton were tried and hanged for murdering the Farrows. This was England’s first conviction using the fingerprint classification system.

Thomas Jennings was the first to be convicted of murder in the United States, in 1911, using fingerprint evidence.

Though dry reading in some places, Fingerprints is an interesting read detailing how fingerprinting came to be accepted as evidence both in England and in the United States. I recommend Fingerprints to anyone interested in the history of fingerprinting.

Mystery writers will find useful information in Fingerprints, but if you just want to know the forensic details skip to the section about how fingerprinting classification works.

For those who write historical mysteries, you’ll find even more useful information--if not the seed for a story--as the history of fingerprints dates back to 1858.

Copyright © 2001 Jodie L. Ball