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It is almost impossible to imagine that prior to the 20th century, there was no reliable way to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. All that changed in Britain in 1905, when ...
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It is almost impossible to imagine that prior to the 20th century, there was no reliable way to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. All that changed in Britain in 1905, when the bloody bodies of an elderly couple were discovered in their shop — and a solitary fingerprint became the only piece of evidence . . .
Colin Beavan writes for numerous magazines, including Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Men's Health, and Men's Journal. He lives in New York City.
The Shocking Tragedy
Most mornings, young William Jones burst through the unlocked door of Chapman's Oil and Colour Shop, heard the tinkle of the bell, and breathed in the sharp-smelling air, heavy with the odor of paint. But today the entrance off the High Street of Deptford, near London, was locked. The sixteen-year-old pressed his shoulder against the door and shoved. No use. It wouldn't budge.
William had never known his boss, Thomas Farrow, to open the shop later than 7:30 A.M. Farrow was promoted to manager and moved into the shop's upstairs apartment with his wife in 1902. In the three years since, he'd never failed to throw open the shop-front shutters when the first early-bird customer knocked, often at sunup. But this morning's knocks had gone unanswered. Disappointed, without their supplies, the house painters rolled their wagons back into the morning throng that bustled its way to work.
By the time William arrived, the fast-walking commuters were gone and the High Street was quiet again. Only stragglers still hurried past: red-eyed butchers rushing to Deptford's slaughterhouses, unshaven sailors running to their ships moored here on the south side of the Thames. The morning rush hour was over. It was 8:35. Still, the shop door was closed. William banged at the door. Over the clip-clop of passing horse-drawn carriages, he shouted at the upstairs windows. No reply. Something was wrong.
At first, William thought the Farrows were ill. At seventy-one and sixty-five, Thomas and Ann weregetting frail. But then a niggling thought reminded William that today, Monday, was banking day, the one time when Mr. Farrow's cash box swelled with a whole week's earnings. When William looked through the letter box in the door, he saw that at the far end of the shop, in the Farrows' small parlor, a large lounge chair lay tipped on its side—a bad sign. William sprinted to George Chapman's other shop in Greenwich, recruited the help of Louis Kidman, Chapman's assistant, and both ran back to Deptford. They would have to break their way in.
The boys burst through a shop adjoining Chapman's. Out back, they scaled a dividing wall and dropped into the Farrows' yard. They found the scullery door open, walked through it, and were immediately horrified by what they saw. Under the overturned lounge chair, Thomas Farrow's body lay face down, crumpled in a grotesque, bloody pile. His bald head, resting on a metal fender surrounding the fireplace hearth, had been smashed open. A pool of dark blood filled the hearth and ran into the cold ashes. The whole grisly scene shocked William so badly that he never stopped to consider that, elsewhere in the building, Mrs. Farrow might be desperately in need of help.
* * *
Chapman's Oil and Colour Shop stood squat and two-story on the High Street, lined up shoulder to shoulder in a long row of stores. At the foot of the High Street the railway ended, the terminus for the commuter line that carried the region's clerks and laborers to the center of London, away from the ugly town of Deptford, which for hundreds of years had been burdened with the stinking, disease-ridden industries that the capital turned away.
In the early seventeenth century, the filth-producing slaughterhouses, exiled by the capital's city fathers, had moved here. When in 1897, the world's then-largest proposed electricity-generating plant was refused a home in London, it too landed in Deptford, along with the smoke and the dirt it belched from its chimney. Only the poorest and most desperate people wound up living among this filth. Some Deptford neighborhoods were so dangerous that policemen refused to patrol them alone.
Cold-blooded murder, however, was an uncommon spectacle. That was why, when Sergeant Albert Atkinson arrived at the scene of what the papers would call "The Shocking Tragedy at Deptford," he was greeted by a rabble of curious onlookers. Inside, the sergeant, with Louis Kidman behind him, stealthily mounted the stairs to the second floor, looking for intruders who might still be hiding. What they found instead was the unconscious Mrs. Farrow. Her head was so badly smashed that both men assumed she was dead. Her moans shocked them into the realization that she still clung to life. Sergeant Atkinson hurriedly rang for the police surgeon.
Dr. Dudley Burnie arrived half an hour later, around 9:45, together with detectives from the nearby Blackheath Road police station. By that time, a large group of constables wrestled back a horde of onlookers who had been helping themselves to macabre souvenirs from inside the shop. Burnie and the policemen had to force their way through.
Burnie rushed upstairs and was in the middle of dressing the gaping, bloody wounds on Mrs. Farrow's head, when she suddenly gained consciousness and struggled violently against him, "evidently being in the state of very great fright," he later said. Ambulance men arrived and heaved Mrs. Farrow onto a stretcher to carry her down the stairs. Thomas Farrow's empty cash box lay on the floor threatening to trip them. Sergeant Atkinson picked it up and shoved it under the bed. He used his bare hands.
Dr. Burnie followed the ambulance men down the stairs and began his examination of Mr. Farrow's body. The time of death, he determined, had been between one and one and a half hours earlier. One large wound gaped open over Farrow's right eyebrow and another on the right side of his nose. The old man had also sustained two gashes above the left ear and one above the right. Later, during the autopsy, the doctor would discover that Farrow's skull had been shattered into several pieces in the region of the temple and that the right cheekbone was fractured. All in all, the police surgeon believed, Thomas Farrow had received six blows to the head, probably with a crowbar.
* * *
Scotland Yard's crack homicide detective, Chief Inspector Frederick Fox, joined the local police at the Oil and Colour Shop around 11:30 A.M. His two crime scene photographers immediately began setting up their bulky boxes and tripods. With Fox also came his boss, Scotland Yard's Assistant Commissioner Melville Macnaghten. A short, mustached man whose fastidious grooming and upright stature gave him the air of a landed gentleman, Macnaghten was in charge of the entire Criminal Investigation Department (the CID). From now on, he would call the shots in the investigation of this high-profile case.
What little his subordinates had pieced together was based on the lack of any signs of forced entry, the fact that Farrow was found still dressed in a nightshirt, and the placement of two puddles of blood. The criminals, the investigators surmised, knocked early in the morning, waking the unsuspecting old man, and telling him through the latched door that they needed painting supplies. Once inside, as Farrow busied himself with attending to their supposed requirements, they clobbered the back of his head, accounting for the puddle of blood behind the counter.
The robbers searched the shop and back parlor for the cash box but, finding nothing, started up the stairs. Farrow, back on his feet, threw himself at the invaders, desperately fighting to keep them off the second floor where his wife lay unprotected in bed. The robbers' further bone-crushing blows to Farrow's head left him bleeding at the foot of the stairs—the location of the second pool of blood. Upstairs, a few merciless swipes silenced Mrs. Farrow's screaming and, searching the bedroom, the robbers found and emptied the cash box.
Descending, they were confronted again by Mr. Farrow, miraculously revived a second time. They scuffled, overturning the furniture in the parlor, until Farrow was again struck down. The burglars rinsed Farrow's blood from their hands in a basin the police later found filled with pinkish water. They cut holes in stockings to make masks, but abandoned them when they realized they would merely attract attention. Instead, the criminals slipped out of the shop and into the rush-hour crowd, as though they were merely customers. They left behind two mortally wounded people—all for the sake of less than ten pounds (about fifty dollars then, or less than a thousand dollars in the year 2000).
Police found no eyewitnesses and no murder weapons. The lack of forced entry meant there was no way to identify the criminals from knowledge of their methods. Not even the stocking masks, found in the shop, offered any helpful clues. If the robbers had brought the masks with them, a visit to the neighborhood stocking shop might have developed a promising lead, but the thieves had cut them from Mrs. Farrow's own hose.
To make matters worse, the burglars, interested only in the shopkeeper's cash, had stolen no trinkets of value. No piece of stolen jewelry or silverware would link them to the case. Visits to pawnshops and known receivers, standard procedure after such a crime, would turn up nothing. The only hope was that Mrs. Farrow might recover consciousness and identify her attackers to the constable who waited beside her hospital bed. But the longer she remained unconscious, the greater the risk that she would succumb to a fatal bout of pneumonia.
Macnaghten saw that the case was troublesome, and it brought back bad memories. Only three days after he first joined the Yard in 1889, two telegrams arrived reporting that the body parts of a woman had been found on the banks of the Thames. Macnaghten and a group of detectives slipped and slid their way along the muddy riverbank, picking over debris in search of the rest of the torso. Because the head was never found, it took a scar on the wrist to identify the body as belonging to a woman who had been reported missing from her lodging house in Chelsea. There the trail went cold. Macnaghten's first case, known as the Thames Mystery, was never solved.
This was just one year after Jack the Ripper's seven brutal murders had gone unsolved, and Macnaghten had then experienced firsthand the public's anger toward the police when they did their job badly. "Jack" had made police investigators look foolish by delivering, right under their noses, signed notes to newspapers. On Macnaghten's first day, his new boss, the CID's then Chief Constable, commenting on the public's angry response, said, "Well, my boy, you are coming into a funny place. They'll blame you if you do your duty, and they'll blame you if you don't."
Throughout the rest of his career, Macnaghten kept on his desk gruesome photographs of the Ripper's victims, each goading him to let no other cases go unsolved. He'd experienced failure, and he couldn't bear to experience it again. But because of the lack of clues turned up by his subordinates in the Farrow case, he might have no choice. This wasn't going to look good for the police.
Farrow had been killed in his own store, on the busy High Street, while commuters rushed past outside, and no policeman had seen or noticed anything suspicious. "Certain members of the police force are lacking in discernment and intelligence," the Kentish Mercury said of the Farrow murder. Recently, another shopkeeper's murder in Brixton had gone unsolved. Together, the crimes suggested a trend, and crime trends were what Macnaghten's CID was supposed to prevent.
Macnaghten marched purposefully past the shop counter and mounted the stairs, determined to search for clues of his own. He surveyed the bloodied chaos in the bedroom, where his eyes fell upon the cash box and its tray, jutting out from under Mrs. Farrow's bed. He carefully picked them up, but not before taking his handkerchief from his pocket to prevent his bare fingers from touching their surfaces.
For some time, a small group of officers in Macnaghten's department had been developing a technique that they claimed could identify a man from a surface that he had touched. Macnaghten and his senior colleagues envisioned a system with assembly-line efficiency, spitting out proofs of the presence of suspects at crime scenes, and closing cases that might otherwise go the way of the Ripper and Thames Mystery murders.
But the use of forensics was uncommon in these times when the boundary between science and quackery was blurry. Acceptance of the new technique depended on convincing the police ranks that it was practical, and the judiciary and the public that it was just. Macnaghten had been hoping for some time for a headline-grabbing case that might prove these points. He thought the Farrow case might be the one.
The Assistant Commissioner turned the cash box and tray over in his hands, scrutinizing the surfaces for the clue he needed. Suddenly he looked up. "Have all the men assemble up here," he told a nearby constable. Once the men had hauled themselves up the steep, narrow stairs, Macnaghten eyed them as a group. "Has anyone touched this cash box or its tray?" No one stepped forward. Macnaghten's tone and demeanor suggested that he might not be pleased with any man who answered yes. He told them to think carefully. This was important.
The officers shuffled nervously. If one had touched it and sought to hide his unintended misdeed, would Macnaghten later hear of the fact from another officer? Better to own up now than get caught in a lie. Sergeant Atkinson stepped forward. He had pushed it a little ways under the bed, he said, to ensure that the stretcher bearers didn't trip on it when they took Mrs. Farrow away. Macnaghten nodded. Again with his handkerchief, he picked up the tray of the cash box, turning its underside toward the men. On the shiny, enameled surface they saw a dull, oval smudge, such as their children's greasy fingers might leave behind after draining a glass of milk. Some understood its import, others did not.
Macnaghten handed the tray along with his handkerchief to one of his officers. Wrap it carefully in paper and make sure no one else touches it, he said. Then Macnaghten turned to Sergeant Atkinson, who was still standing in front of the assembly. Macnaghten could see that the young sergeant was embarrassed. No harm done, Macnaghten said. But he ordered the sergeant to report to Detective-Inspector Charles Collins at the Yard so he could be sure the mark on the tray hadn't come from his fingers.
When Macnaghten left the room, those officers who understood the significance of the smudge carped among themselves. The old guard were highly suspicious of this new "scientific palmistry" that so intrigued the boss. Use of these newfangled fingerprints in such a high-profile murder investigation could bring ridicule on the Yard. Only once before had a crime-scene fingerprint been accepted in a British court, and that was just for burglary. This was murder. What jury would be willing to send a man to the gallows on the evidence of a gob of sweat smeared on a piece of metal?
* * *
Thomas Farrow's body was barely cold when Detective-Inspector Collins received the cash-box tray later that day. Collins was second in command of the new fingerprint branch, a part of Macnaghten's CID. Before the 1901 formation of the branch, Collins had, for many years, been forced to use old-fashioned methods of criminal identification, based on measuring bodies, photographing faces, and writing down distinguishing features. These methods were far from reliable. Now, for the first time in his career, Collins had encountered an identification system that actually worked, and he was obsessed with it. He would ultimately dedicate more than twenty-five years of his life to improving and applying the fingerprint technique.
In his office loomed a huge wooden cabinet with 1,024 pigeonholes accommodating each of the classifications into which an individual's set of ten fingerprints could fall. A handful of fingerprint experts bustled back and forth between their workbenches and the cabinet's cataloged fingertip impressions. Examined closely, a fingertip reveals a pattern of parallel ridges interspersed with furrows, as though of a diminutive farm field. The furrows are like gutters into which moisture flows so that it is not trapped in a slippery film between the fingertip and whatever it is trying to grip.
It is not the ridges' function that makes them of interest to the identification expert, however. What fascinates him instead is the fact that the intricate ridge patterns are unique to each finger. A fingerprint expert can tell apart the marks of two digits more easily than he can differentiate two people's faces. The facial features of identical twins, for example, can be mistaken, but their fingerprints can never be confused by a trained expert, however. A person's fingerprint set is therefore a permanent and unmistakable record of his identity. It is like a biological seal which, once impressed, can never be denied. Eighty thousand such biological seals of convicted criminals crowded the pigeonholes in Scotland Yard's fingerprint branch.
This massive collection of fingerprints, however, had never before been used to collar a murderer. Sleuthing was not the fingerprint expert's primary function. Instead, Collins and his colleagues passed their days filing fingerprints taken from recent convicts, and using the previously filed fingerprints to doublecheck the identities of the newly arrested. Their main goal was to identify "recidivist" or "habitual" offenders who pretended to be first-timers, adopting pseudonyms in hopes of hiding their previous convictions and getting lighter sentences.
The practice of correlating a criminal's sentence with the number of his prior convictions began in the nineteenth century, when jail cells and prison guards first took the place of gallows and their hangmen. To the essentially honest man who fell on hard times and stole to feed his family, the new prison system prescribed a short stay behind bars, just enough unpleasantness to deter further crime. It was believed that the habitual offender, on the other hand, could not so easily have his criminal bent punished out of him. Long-term removal from society was thought to be the only way to prevent his misdeeds. There was one problem with this two-pronged penal approach: How do you tell the hardened criminals from the first-timers?
The first suggested use of fingerprints as a method of criminal identification came in an October 1880 issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature. An article, penned by an unknown Scottish medical missionary working in Japan named Henry Faulds, proposed many of the elements of the fingerprint system as it eventually came to be used. Faulds, having studied thousands of fingerprints, would spend the next ten years trying to convince Scotland Yard to adopt the ideas in his article. The Yard dismissed Faulds as a crank, and cruelly, when it finally did adopt fingerprinting, denied that Faulds had any part in the system's conception.
A month after the publication of Faulds's article, a second article on fingerprints appeared, also in Nature. William Herschel, a British magistrate based in Bengal, replying to Faulds, wrote that he had used fingerprints officially as "sign-manuals," or signatures, sanctioning the idea's practicality. Still, the British establishment paid no attention to fingerprinting until, in 1888, the interest of the well-known scientist Francis Galton gave it credibility. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton's passion was the improvement of the human race by artificial selection. He took to fingerprints, thinking their intricate ridge patterns might somehow reveal their owners' physical and mental capacities—their worth as breeding stock.
Galton's published work sparked the interest of the Inspector-General of Police in Bengal, India, Edward Henry, who made the leap from theory to practice and applied fingerprints to police work. Henry and his assistant, Azizul Hague, developed a classification system that allowed fingerprint sets to be logically filed according to the form of their ridge patterns. Without the system, an inspector searching for a particular fingerprint set would have to rummage through the entire collection. With it, he easily went straight to the place where the set was filed. What came to be known as the Henry classification system made possible the use of fingerprint registers numbering in the many thousands, a prerequisite for practical use in criminal identification.
When widespread use of fingerprint identification proved successful in India, Henry was in 1901 recalled to London, made Assistant Commissioner of the CID, and charged with establishing Scotland Yard's new Fingerprint Branch. The branch had immediate success, cracking the pseudonyms of 632 repeat offenders in its first year. In 1905, Henry was promoted to Commissioner of Scotland Yard. He left the Fingerprint Branch in the hands of Detective-Inspector Charles Steadman and his deputy, Detective-Inspector Collins, the officer to whom Macnaghten delivered the Farrow murder cash box.
At his workbench, Collins examined the cash-box tray under his magnifying glass. Fingerprints can be impressed in anything from paint to blood, but this one, like most found at crime scenes, had been left in sweat. On the gripping surfaces of the hands and feet, 3,000 sweat glands per square inch crowd together more densely than anywhere else on the body. Keeping the skin lubricated so it does not crack, the glands also make each finger like a self-inking rubber stamp, leaving calling cards on every surface it touches.
Because of this, since most human action involves touching, fingerprints invisibly populate the world's surfaces. Taken together, these fingerprints are like pages from the Recording Angel's book of deeds, and Charles Collins, with his magnifying glass, could read them. If a fingerprint he found on an object matched a fingerprint in his cabinet, Collins could deduce the name of the person who touched the object. This is how Collins hoped to discover Farrow's murderer.
The impression on the cash-box tray followed an arch pattern and came from a right thumb. Collins could tell that it was a thumb because the impression was too large to come from other fingers. He could tell right or left by the slope of the ridges. Ridge slope on a right thumb impression is more steep on its right side, and vice versa for a left thumb.
Collins's next job was to search through his files, paying special attention to the prints of housebreakers who had an arch on the right thumb. He fingered his cabinet's cards slowly and meticulously, for he knew that public acceptance of fingerprint evidence could be won through their successful use in this case. But no luck. On Tuesday morning, the day after the murder, he reluctantly reported to Macnaghten that the print on the cash-box tray did not match any prints on file.
The news was not all bad, however. Collins had compared the cash-box tray print to those of Mr. and Mrs. Farrow and of Sergeant Atkinson, who had mistakenly touched the tray. The print belonged to none of them. That meant that it probably belonged to one of the murderers. If so, Macnaghten and Collins thought they could use it to win both their case and their much desired public respect for fingerprints. But first a suspect had to be found.
* * *
The investigation's first lucky break came when Chief Inspector Fox encountered Henry Jennings, a milkman, and Edward Russell, his eleven-year-old helper. During their rounds, about 7:15 on the morning of the murder, Jennings and Russell saw two men coming out of Chapman's. One had a dark mustache and wore a blue suit, black boots, and a bowler hat. The other was clad in a dark brown suit, gray cap, and brown boots. Jennings shouted to them, "You have left the door open." The mustached man turned around and said, "Oh! It is all right; it don't matter," and left the door ajar.
Fox now had descriptions of two suspects. But if the milkmen had last seen the door open at 7:15, and William Jones arrived at 8:30 to find it locked tight, who closed the door? Was there, Chief Inspector Fox wondered, a third robber who came out after the other two, closing the door behind him?
The fact that three masks had been found in the shop seemed to confirm this theory. Also, three men, two of them answering the descriptions given by the milkmen made a twenty-minute visit to Deptford's Duke of Cambridge Pub at 6:00 A.M. on the morning of the murder. Could the third man in the pub have been the door-closer? The police took his description from the bartender and began searching for the third man, too.
Then police found another witness, Alfred Purfield, a painter. On the morning of the murder, he had waited for a colleague across the street from Chapman's and watched the door being shut. It was "an old gentleman," he told police. "He had blood on his face, shirt and hands. He stayed at the door for a short time and then closed it." The door had been shut by Farrow himself. He had obviously regained consciousness one last time and, too dazed to call for help, simply closed the door before expiring in the parlor. This destroyed the third-man theory. Chief Inspector Fox was not happy. It was three days since the murder and he'd run out of leads.
Enter Fox's second lucky break, a witness who took her time coming forward because she didn't think what she saw was important. Ellen Stanton was on her way to catch the 7:20 train to London on the morning of the murder when she saw two men running from the High Street. What were they wearing? Fox asked. Stanton said one wore a dark suit and a dark cap and the other wore a bowler. Fox's heart skipped a beat. Stanton was wrong about the importance of what she'd seen. Her description matched perfectly with the milkmen's. Did you recognize them? Fox asked. "I recognize [sic] one of the men as Alfred Stratton...." Stanton said. "I don't know the man who was with him...."
Suddenly, Fox had one suspect for sure and guessed he had another. Twenty-two-year-old Alfred Stratton's younger brother Albert, twenty, was his constant cohort and he had a mustache to boot, matching the milkmen's descriptions. The brothers had no criminal records, but they were known by the local police to be living off prostitutes. Fox reported all this to Macnaghten. The Strattons, Fox believed, were the culprits, but he lacked ironclad evidence. Macnaghten nevertheless ordered him to arrest the brothers. Once the Strattons were captured, Macnaghten reasoned, one of their thumbprints would provide all the evidence that was needed.
On Sunday night, six days after the murder, Alfred was arrested at the King of Prussia Pub in Deptford. The next morning, Albert was collared on a Deptford streetcorner. But at the police station, things took a nasty turn for Fox and Macnaghten when neither Jennings, the milkman, nor Russell, his helper, could pick the Stratton brothers out of a crowd of prisoners in the exercise yard. There would be no question, either, of identification by Mrs. Farrow; she had succumbed to her injuries and died. The Strattons, watching the police case fall apart, were so giddy with excitement that they joked that Detective-Inspector Collins tickled them when he took their fingerprints.
With no eyewitnesses linking the Strattons to Chapman's, Macnaghten had to virtually beg the magistrate at Tower Bridge Police Court to remand the brothers into custody. He needed time, he explained, for Collins to compare their prints with the smudge on the cash box. The counsel from the public prosecutor's office warned Macnaghten that the evidence in hand was insufficient for a prosecution. If the prints didn't match, the brothers would go free.
Back in his office, Macnaghten waited impatiently for the results of Collins's examination. Two tense hours passed as he pondered the press-lashing the Yard might take for another unsolved murder. Then Charles Collins rushed through his door, ecstatic. "Good God, sir," he exclaimed, "I have found that the mark on the cash-box tray is in exact correspondence with the print of the right thumb of the elder prisoner."
* * *
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. Macnaghten deferred to Scotland Yard Commissioner Edward Henry to weigh the odds.
To its credit, fingerprinting had its four-year record of success in identifying habitual offenders. But the Fingerprint Branch had its detractors. Ten fingerprints may identify a man, believed a number of distinguished scientists and doctors, but they highly distrusted the use of a single fingerprint, especially when a hanging was at stake. So strong was their distrust that they would be willing to pit their reputations against Scotland Yard in any upcoming trial.
Most damaging among their mingled grumblings rang the voice of Henry Faulds, the man who first suggested fingerprints to identify criminals. Faulds had compared many thousands of fingerprint sets to satisfy himself that no ten fingerprints could be duplicated on two different people. He complained publicly that no one, including the Yard, had made a similar comparative study to prove that each single fingerprint was unique. Until this was done, he insisted, no man should be sent to the jailer or the hangman on the basis of a single fingerprint, particularly one identified by the Yard's Fingerprint Branch. Ever since the Branch had denied Faulds's part in the fingerprint conception, Faulds had bitterly questioned its integrity. It didn't help the Yard's case that Faulds delivered his arguments with the force of a man who had been scorned.
It didn't help, either, that science didn't have the foothold in the courtrooms that it does today. For most of history, the only evidence allowed at trial was the testimony of eyewitnesses. The use of physical evidence to reconstruct events had been considered too vulnerable to manipulation. The legal process had since been dragged slowly forward, but juries were still more used to hearing what people had seen with their own eyes than what experts said they could deduce by other means. Unlike the rest of society during the industrial revolution, the judiciary had not yet been won over by science. When he decided to take the gamble and prosecute the Stratton brothers for the murders of Thomas and Ann Farrow, Edward Henry knew that this trial could change all that. But the big question remained: Had thirteen hundred years of British legal history prepared the courts for one of their greatest-ever leaps into the future?
Copyright © 2001 Steve Monroe. All rights reserved.
|Chronology of Fingerprints||xiii|
|1. The Shocking Tragedy at Deptford||1|
|2. To Catch a Crook||20|
|3. Like Rats with No Rat-Catcher||39|
|4. Marks on a Cocktail Glass||61|
|5. In a Criminal's Bones||76|
|6. A Biological Coat of Arms||94|
|7. Britain's Identity Crisis||112|
|8. The Case of the Little Blue Notebook||130|
|9. An Innocent in Jail||147|
|10. The Stratton Trial||167|
Posted January 3, 2013
When given an assignment for my forensics class to choose a book to read, I randomly chose "Fingerprints: The Origins and Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic History" by Colin Beavan. Honestly, I expected the book to be dry, and something I would just have to read. The topic of fingerprinting remotely interested me after learning about fingerprints in class, but I was not expecting much from this novel. Thankfully, this book was a lot better than I expected. The story was about the murders of Mr. and Mrs. Farrow, two shopkeepers in England. The world of forensics and fingerprints was introduced previous to the murder case but was not very well known or used. Fingerprint testing and analysis really took off and became wildly popular due to that particular case. Even today, fingerprints are a huge part of the forensic and criminal justice world. No two fingerprints are the same, and this book really mastered that concept. “Fingerprints: The Origins and Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic History" portrayed the story of the murders in an extremely fascinating manner. The vocabulary was fairly simple, and anyone could understand it. The concept is not overly complicated; a 12 year old could easily comprehend. Although a fairly simple concept, fingerprinting is still fascinating and something that I am personally intrigued by. The story was enticing and kept me on the balls of my feet. Every time I went to put this book down, I could not bear to do it. I would just pick it back up again and continue to read. This book was not was I was expecting, in fact it was much better. Beavan is an excellent author and I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in forensic science, or is just looking for a good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 19, 2001
As a lover of crime stories and detective novels in general, I was very interested in this book. Although I don't usually read history books as they are often too dense and dry for my tastes, this book captured my imagination from the start. Mr. Beavan's vivid characterizations, natural storytelling, and his ability to weave historical detail into a riveting, fast-paced tale made this book exciting and fun to read. The way he crafted this story made the complexity of fingerprinting accessible, understandable and interesting. I especially loved the way he brought his characters to life and painted a compelling portrait of their personalities, allowing me to feel as if I was actually meeting the men who discovered and developed this incredible and intricate science. I highly recommend this book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 7, 2001
Amazing! Beavan creates a thriller from a century-old tale, turning the history of forensic science into a literary potboiler. This is the true-life version of the Alienist!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 7, 2001
This is a gem of a book. It has made me look at crime-fighting and forensic science in an entirely new way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 3, 2001
This book has several historical story lines simultaneously. The first looks at judicial history to trace the development of physical evidence, leading up to fingerprints and DNA. The second narrowly addresses the first murder case where a conviction was based in part on fingerprint evidence. The third assesses the claims of those who sought credit for fingerprints as a form of identification. The fourth looks at the lifelong battles to discredit the other claimants. If the last story line had been left out or downplayed, this would have been a five-star book. The book is aimed at those with a casual interest in these subjects, and as such serves the role of being an introduction. In the Middle Ages, disputes were often solved by having the disputants dip their bodies into scalding hot water or be branded with red-hot iron. After the sores festered for a few days, a whiff of the odor from the infection in the injury would suggest whose side was favored by God. In other cases, disputants beat each other with sticks. These trials by ordeal were gradually replaced by witnesses for the prosecution. The only problem there was that liars could cause lots of deaths and did. Gradually, the defense got to use witnesses as well. Who was right? Following that, physical evidence began to be used in cases. Professional detective work began in France in the 19th century (led by Vidocq who was the model for Jean Valjean and his police nemesis in Les Miserables), and England soon followed after some embarrassing scandals of police ineptitude. Several people became interested in physical characteristics of people at the same time. In India, dislike of the British was leading Indian people to disavow their agreements. A British magistrate began having them affix partial sets of fingerprints. The method helped intimidate people to perform. Separately, a doctor who had practiced in Japan had noticed that fingerprints seemed to be unique and proposed that they be used to identify criminals (there was a concern that those who continued to break the law remain incarcerated). Separately, a Frenchman found a series of body measurements that could verify a person's identity without using fingerprints. This method gradually lost out to fingerprints, which proved to be easier to do and identify. The stage was thus set for a fascinating case. A couple were murdered in their shop. A smeared thumbprint was found on the cash box that matched one of the suspects. The leading experts on fingerprints all offered themselves for the trial. When the defense upset the circumstantial evidence and cast doubt on the eyewitnesses, the prosecutor had no choice but to use the fingerprints. We will never know what weight the jury placed on this, but two hours later they convicted. Nineteen days later the two guilty parties were hung. A number of other fascinating cases are briefly outlined where fingerprints either helped locate the criminal (some of whom then confessed) or freed an innocent person. There's a lot of description about how the identification methods have evolved. Did you know that if someone physically erases their fingerprints, new ones will grow in that are the same? Following that, you get the credit wars that raged among those who worked in the area. Here's where the book tailed off in interest for me. Fingerprints have kept becoming more and more useful as new ways of capturing them have been developed. Also, criminals seem to be not very smart about keeping their fingerprints to themselves. I loved the part about the criminals who threw away the package their gloves came in with fingerprints all over the packaging. To this day, no one can prove that all fingerprints are unique. But they have become a universally accepted form of proof. Do you have any idea about how this uniqueness could be proved? Perhaps the human genome project will provide a way to double check fingerprints against DNA to establish the point. Keep sWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.