Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

All about Fingerprints and Other Impressions

The Techniques

Dr. Bertillon (CORBIS)
Dr. Bertillon (CORBIS)

Before prints became a principal part of crime scene investigation, there was a movement that started in France to standardize body measurements for making identifications based on physical uniqueness. In 1883, Alphonse Bertillon, who was a file clerk for the French police, devised a way to tell when they were dealing with repeat offenders. As criminals came in, he took eleven to fourteen separate measurements, from the length of the foot to the width of the jaw, to classify them as small, medium or large, and recorded the measurements on cards. He believed that no two people would have precisely the same measurements, and he thereby introduced scientific method into criminal investigations. He called his technique anthropometry, but it soon became known as bertillonage. While this method quickly became popular throughout Europe, it wasn't long before fingerprinting eclipsed it. Getting a set of prints was much easier than taking all these measurements.

According to Brian Innes in Bodies of Evidence, fingerprinting itself dates back to the first century when a Roman attorney showed that a palm print was used to frame someone for murder. Other cultures also used prints as authentification for a person's work, and there are even cave drawings that seem to indicate that fingerprints were important.

Then in the nineteenth century, several different people began to look into a scientific way of categorizing fingerprints. In the 1830s, Prussian professor Johannes Purkinje defined nine basic fingerprint types and thus became the first person to devise a fingerprint classification. Twenty years later, William Herschel recognized the individuality of fingerprints and used them for contracts.

By 1880, Scottish Physician Henry Fauld discovered that the perspiration from the fingerprints could be made visible with powders, and he used a fingerprint at a crime scene to eliminate a suspect and indict the true perpetrator. Along with his groundbreaking work, other researchers discovered the significant fact that fingerprints were unchanging over time.

Sir Francis Galton published the first book about fingerprints and their forensic utility in 1892. He proposed that there were three primary features and from them he could devise 60,000 classes. He worked with Sir Edward Henry, head of Scotland Yard, who come up with a classification system based on five types that influences the one in use today.

Fingerprint evidence got a big boost when two convicts with the same name and same anthropometry measurements were found in Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas in 1903. Since their fingerprints clearly distinguished them, this case brought fingerprinting into its own as the leading tool for identification. By 1910, based on a print left in wet paint in a murder case, an appeals court declared that fingerprint technology had a scientific basis.

Congress eventually established a national depository of fingerprint records at the FBI, which was computerized in the 1980s to become widely accessible.

In his Crime Scene Handbook, criminologist Henry C. Lee says that fingerprints "constitute the most important category of physical evidence for positive identification or individualization."