Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

All about Fingerprints and Other Impressions

The Case That Made History

The year was 1905. It was 8:30 a.m. in Deptford, England. A young man entered Chapman's Oil and Colour Shop on High Street to report for work. Oddly, no one seemed to be around, which aroused his suspicions. He found a companion to help him search and they looked around for Thomas Farrow, his boss. It wasn't long before they found the man, but the 71-year-old Farrow was dead.

Colin Beavan retells this story in Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science. According to his research, Farrow lay in a bloody heap under an overturned chair. His head had been smashed, exposing the brain, and the place showed signs of a terrific struggle.

Mrs. Ann Farrow lived upstairs. No one knew whether she might have been attacked as well, and at first no one thought to look. It was the search for intruders that brought her to someone's attention. She'd been attacked but wasn't dead. Her head, too, had been cracked open, but her moans alerted the searchers and she was taken away in an ambulance.

An empty cash box revealed the motive for the early morning crime. Farrow had gaping wounds to the face and over his left ear. An autopsy indicated that his skull had been broken into several pieces from six separate blows.

Chief Inspector Frederick Fox and Assistant Commissioner Melville Macnaghten from Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Department (CID) took over the case.

The crime scene indicated several things: there was no forced entry, there were separate puddles of blood, and the victims were still in their nightclothes. They figured that Farrow had been deceived into opening the door while still half asleep. Then he'd been hit. He came to, went after the robbers, and was hit again. The robbers had then gone up to the bedroom, hit Mrs. Farrow, located the cashbox and fled with the money.

The police noted that Farrow had once again revived and struggled with the intruders. This time they'd killed him and washed their hands in a nearby basin. They had cut some stockings in the house for masks but left them at the scene. They managed to take about ten pounds (the current worth of which Beavan estimates at about $2000). There were no eyewitnesses except Mrs. Farrow, but she was unconscious.

Macnaghten wondered if this might be a case for a new technique that men in his department were developing for identifying repeat offenders. He used his handkerchief to carefully pick up the cashbox and take it in.

At this time, forensic science was in its infancy. Some standardizing techniques had been tried with success, but the idea that people left a residue on a surface that they touched that could actually be associated back to the person was viewed with some doubt.

Yet Macnaghten had seen a clear impression on the underside of the box's inner metal tray. He knew he was risking public ridicule. Murders were rare in that area so public scrutiny would be intense. The people wanted it solved, and solved without questionable methods. In the event an arrest was made, a jury would have to be fully convinced.

It's not that fingerprints hadn't already been tried. In fact, a print had been used in a case of burglary. But a murder conviction meant ending a man's life. That would be taken far more seriously.

Detective Inspector Charles Collins was in charge of the fingerprint division of CID. The cashbox tray went to him. He was among those who were convinced of the reliability of fingerprint evidence, although the technique was still a bit unwieldy. While it hadn't yet been used for real detective work, it worked well to undermine pseudonyms of previously convicted criminals attempting to pass themselves off as first-time offenders.

Scotland Yard sign (AP)
Scotland Yard sign (AP)

Scotland Yard was the first law enforcement agency to take seriously the work of Henry Fauld, who had published an article in 1880 proposing a system of fingerprint classification and tried for years to persuade officers to use it in criminal work. In 1892, the scientist Francis Galton wrote about ridge patterns, inspiring Edward Henry to develop his own classification system for police work in India. Then Henry was transferred to London in 1901 to Scotland Yard, where he established CID's fingerprint section.

The print on the cashbox tray had been made with perspiration and appeared to have been left by a thumb. There was already a file for recorded prints of housebreakers, so these were compared to the unknown offender's. There was no match. That made identifying a suspect much more difficult. Yet the prints also did not match either of the victims, so that meant they actually had a good print for later use.

Then a milkman described two men who had left the house that morning, leaving the door open. Another witness identified a man named Alfred Stratton as being in the vicinity at the right time, and the milkman's description matched Stratton's brother, Albert.

Yet identification proved tricky. Mrs. Farrow had died from her wounds and the milkman could not say upon viewing them in the prison yard that the Stratton brothers were the men he had seen leaving the premises. Still, the inspectors took their prints. After hours of waiting, with a lot riding in the balance, a match was made between the print on the tray and the thumbprint of the elder brother.

Now even more hung in the balance. If the print was barred from court, the technology would be set back considerably, possibly for a long time. If it was admitted and actually contributed to a conviction, it would become a legal precedent and an incredible coup for the marriage of science and crime scene investigation. That meant that objective techniques could one day supplant the more subjective eyewitness testimony. However, would any jury vote to hang a man based only on one print?

To make matters more difficult, Henry Fauld became a vocal detractor. He believed that one needed all ten prints to make a definitive identification.

Nevertheless, Scotland Yard decided to take the risk.

It didn't go well. For each person the prosecution used to build a case, the defense had ways to dispute him or her. Nevertheless, it became clear that the brothers had masks in their possession similar to those found at the crime scene, they had tried to persuade someone to give them an alibi, they had more money after the murder than before, and they had taken some pains to change their appearance after reading an account of the crime. They had also been seen in the crime scene vicinity both before and after.

Then the fingerprint experts were called. It was clear that everything rested on this evidence. When Collins showed the jury with enlarged photographs how the prints from the scene matched the elder Stratton on eleven points of comparison, it was impressive. He also told them that he'd been working for over four years with files that numbered over 90,000 prints. However, the defense had an esteemed scientist who pointed out the dissimilarities. It looked like the prosecution had nowhere to go, but they then produced letters written by the defense expert to the effect that he would offer testimony to the highest bidder. That left the jury on their own, to decide the case based on what they'd seen and heard.

It wasn't just the British public that watched this trial closely; law enforcement departments the world over who were using or considering fingerprint evidence for criminal investigations were watching as well.

It took the jury two hours to side with the fingerprint interpretation. Both men were convicted of the murders and hanged.

It wasn't long before other departments adopted the techniques, and then prints were used to identify bodies that had no other obvious means of identification. It also wasn't long before criminals attempted to remove or disfigure their prints, as was the case with the American gangster, John Dillinger.


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