Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fingerprinting and Mark Twain, a brief history

Justin wrote about Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson earlier this month and how this novel raised awareness of fingerprinting. Here's a little more detail.

A number of years ago I was doing research into a murder committed in 1886. This included reading extensive newspaper coverage of the crime. A coroner's jury converged on the scene, and it was noted that a 'bloody fingerprint' was found on the side of a dry goods box in which the body of a 10-year-old girl was placed. To my amazement, the fingerprint was never mentioned again, even through summaries of the testimony of the 30 or so witnesses called at trial.

I then researched fingerprinting. Essentially, the only person in the United States who had written of fingerprinting as a tool of criminal forensics by that time was Mark Twain. His Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, contains a collection of essays and short stories revolving around that mighty river and the people who navigated it and lived with it in their blood. One such story concerns the memories of a man who had attempted to catch the killers of his wife and child by using fingerprint evidence. (Fingerprinting is a central plot device in Pudd'nhead, written ten years later.)

In all likelihood, Twain's inspiration came from a paper published in the journal 'Nature' in 1880. Henry Faulds, an Englishman who served as a medical missionary in Japan, developed a side interest in ancient pottery. He came to notice that the artists left a distinctive fingerprint on the bottom of the pots, and came to categorize the works by their creators. Faulds went on to note that such techniques could be used to catch criminals.

Fingerprinting was slow to catch on at first. It was not until 1903 that finger prints were systematically used in the United States, at Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York. By 1924 a national system was developed.

While Pudd'nhead Wilson helped establish the usefulness of fingerprints in the national consciousness, law enforcement agencies were slow to understand its potential. Mark Twain, once again, was far ahead of his time.
- Dave

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