Sherlock Holmes first used fingerprinting as a sleuthing tool in The Sign of the Four, in 1890, but it was another decade before the practice was adopted by real-life detectives.
Early Victorian police detectives had only their powers of memory to rely on when trying to identify habitual offenders. At a time when criminals often changed their appearance and used aliases to evade the law, police officers visited prisons to record the physical appearance of inmates, in the hope that they would recognise them on the outside, if they reoffended. At the beginning of the 20th century, the instigation of the Fingerprint Bureau at Scotland Yard revolutionised suspect identification and transformed crime scene investigation.
Fingerprinting was first used, in modern history, in 1823, when the Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy Johann Purkinje published a thesis positing nine distinct fingerprint patterns. However, he made no reference to using the practice in crime investigation. In the 1850s, Sir William Herschel, a colonial administrator in the Indian civil service used fingerprints for signing documents. He later used them to identify prison inmates and is credited with being the first person to recognise their importance as a means of identification.
In 1880, Scottish surgeon Dr Henry Faulds published the first formal proposal of using fingerprints in crime investigation, although the idea didn’t gain ground with the police. A decade later, on the publication of his book, Finger Prints, in 1892, Sir Francis Galton laid the groundwork for transformative changes. In the meantime, Sir Edward Henry, the inspector general of police in Nepal had also been engaging in the practice. He developed a new system of classification based on four distinct fingerprint patterns: arches, loops, whorls and composites. He was appointed as assistant commissioner at New Scotland Yard in 1900 and introduced the Fingerprint Bureau the following year.
From then on, all individuals placed on remand had their fingerprints taken in prison, which were kept in a large filing cabinet at New Scotland Yard. Detectives also began photographing fingerprints left at crime scenes. In 1902, the first case was solved in this way. When a house was burgled in Denmark Hill, London, the police found prints on a freshly painted windowsill. They matched those of well-known thief Harry Jackson and he was sentenced to seven years.
Three years later, the first murder conviction was gained from a thumb print left on a cash box. Thomas and Ann Farrow were killed in their bed, at home in Deptford. Their cash box was under their pillow and a faint mark on the tray was photographed by police. When brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton were arrested on suspicion, after having been spotted in the vicinity, the mark compared favourably with one of the suspects. The Stratton brothers were convicted of the murders and executed in May 1905.
In The Sign of the Four, when Sherlock whips out his magnifying glass to examine some marks as he climbed the stairs of Pondicherry Lodge, Dr Watson dismisses them as, ‘mere shapeless smudges of dust’. However, as usual, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was ahead of the game.
Classification and Uses of Finger Prints, Sir E. R. Henry (1934, His Majesty’s Stationery Office)
Forensic Science: A Very Short Introduction, Jim Fraser (2010. OUP)
A Forensic Forum, Robin Odell (2017, Mango Books)
Masks used by the Stratton brothers (above) © Museum of London – reproduced with permission