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History in Forensics

The History of Fingerprints

Pre-historic picture writing of a hand with ridge patterns was discovered in Nova Scotia. In ancient Babylon, fingerprints were used on clay tablets for business transactions. In ancient China, thumbprints were found on clay seals.

In 14th century Persia, various official government papers had fingerprints (impressions), and one government official, a doctor, observed that no two fingerprints were exactly alike.

Marcello Malpighi - 1686

In 1686, Marcello Malpighi, a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, noted in his treatise; ridges, spirals and loops in fingerprints. He made no mention of their value as a tool for individual identification. A layer of skin was named after him; "Malpighi" layer, which is approximately 1.8mm thick. 

John Evangelist Purkinji - 1823

In 1823, John Evangelist Purkinji, a professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published his thesis discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but he too made no mention of the value of fingerprints for personal identification. 

Sir William Hershel - 1856

The English first began using fingerprints in July of 1858, when Sir William Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India, first used fingerprints on native contracts. On a whim, and with no thought toward personal identification, Herschel had Rajyadhar Konai, a local businessman, impress his hand print on the back of a contract.

The idea was merely ". . . to frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The native was suitably impressed, and Herschel made a habit of requiring palm prints--and later, simply the prints of the right Index and Middle fingers--on every contract made with the locals. Personal contact with the document, they believed, made the contract more binding than if they simply signed it. Thus, the first wide-scale, modern-day use of fingerprints was predicated, not upon scientific evidence, but upon superstitious beliefs.

As his fingerprint collection grew, however, Herschel began to note that the inked impressions could, indeed, prove or disprove identity. While his experience with fingerprinting was admittedly limited, Sir Herschel's private conviction that all fingerprints were unique to the individual, as well as permanent throughout that individual's life, inspired him to expand their use. 

Dr. Henry Faulds - 1880

During the 1870's, Dr. Henry Faulds, the British Surgeon-Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo, Japan, took up the study of "skin-furrows" after noticing finger marks on specimens of "prehistoric" pottery. A learned and industrious man, Dr. Faulds not only recognized the importance of fingerprints as a means of identification, but devised a method of classification as well.

In 1880, Faulds forwarded an explanation of his classification system and a sample of the forms he had designed for recording inked impressions, to Sir Charles Darwin. Darwin, in advanced age and ill health, informed Dr. Faulds that he could be of no assistance to him, but promised to pass the materials on to his cousin, Francis Galton.

Also in 1880, Dr. Faulds published an article in the Scientific Journal, "Nautre" (nature). He discussed fingerprints as a means of personal identification, and the use of printers ink as a method for obtaining such fingerprints. He is also credited with the first fingerprint identification of a greasy fingerprint left on an alcohol bottle.

Gilbert Thompson - 1882

In 1882, Gilbert Thompson of the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico, used his own fingerprints on a document to prevent forgery. This is the first known use of fingerprints in the United States. 

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) - 1883

In Mark Twain's book, "Life on the Mississippi", a murderer was identified by the use of fingerprint identification. In a later book by Mark Twain, "Pudd'n Head Wilson", there was a dramatic court trial on fingerprint identification. A more recent movie was made from this book. 

Sir Francis Galton - 1888

Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist and a cousin of Charles Darwin, began his observations of fingerprints as a means of identification in the 1880's. In 1892, he published his book, "Fingerprints", establishing the individuality and permanence of fingerprints. The book included the first classification system for fingerprints.

Galton's primary interest in fingerprints was as an aid in determining heredity and racial background. While he soon discovered that fingerprints offered no firm clues to an individual's intelligence or genetic history, he was able to scientifically prove what Herschel and Faulds already suspected: that fingerprints do not change over the course of an individual's lifetime, and that no two fingerprints are exactly the same. According to his calculations, the odds of two individual fingerprints being the same were 1 in 64 billion.

Galton identified the characteristics by which fingerprints can be identified. These same characteristics (minutia) are basically still in use today, and are often referred to as Galton's Details. 

Juan Vucetich

In 1891, Juan Vucetich, an Argentine Police Official, began the first fingerprint files based on Galton pattern types. At first, Vucetich included the Bertillon System with the files. (see Bertillon below)

In 1892, Juan Vucetich made the first criminal fingerprint identification. He was able to identify a woman by the name of Rojas, who had murdered her two sons, and cut her own throat in an attempt to place blame on another.

Her bloody print was left on a door post, proving her identity as the murderer. 


Introduction of fingerprints for criminal identification in England and Wales, using Galton's observations and revised by Sir Edward Richard Henry. Thus began the Henry Classification System, used even today in all English speaking countries.


First systematic use of fingerprints in the U.S. by the New York Civil Service Commission for testing. Dr. Henry P. DeForrest pioneers U.S. fingerprinting. 


The New York State Prison system began the first systematic use of fingerprints in U.S. for criminals. 


The use of fingerprints began in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, and the St. Louis Police Department. They were assisted by a Sergeant from Scotland Yard who had been on duty at the St. Louis Exposition guarding the British Display. 


1905 saw the use of fingerprints for the U.S. Army. Two years later the U.S. Navy started, and was joined the next year by the Marine Corp. During the next 25 years more and more law enforcement agencies join in the use of fingerprints as a means of personal identification. Many of these agencies began sending copies of their fingerprint cards to the National Bureau of Criminal Identification, which was established by the International Association of Police Chiefs.

It was in 1918 when Edmond Locard wrote that if 12 points (Galton's Details) were the same between two fingerprints, it would suffice as a positive identification. This is where the often quoted (12 points) originated. Be aware though, there is "NO" required number of points necessary for an identification. Some countries have set their own standards which do include a minimum number of points, but not in the United States.

In 1924, an act of congress established the Identification Division of the F.B.I.. The National Bureau and Leavenworth consolidated to form the nucleus of the F.B.I. fingerprint files.

By 1946, the F.B.I. had processed 100 million fingerprint cards in manually maintained files; and by 1971, 200 million cards.

With the introduction of AFIS technology, the files were split into computerized criminal files and manually maintained civil files.  Many of the manual files were duplicates though, the records actually represented somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 million criminals, and an unknown number of individuals in the civil files.

In 1999, the FBI plans to stop using paper fingerprint cards (at least for the newly arriving civil fingerprints) inside their new Integrated AFIS (IAFIS) site at Clarksburg, WV.  IAFIS will initially have individual computerized fingerprint records for approximately 33 million criminals.  Old paper fingerprint cards for the civil files are still manually maintained in a warehouse facility (rented shopping center space) in Fairmont, WV.  Since the Gulf War, most military fingerprint enlistment cards received have been filed only alphabetically by name... the FBI hopes to someday classify and file these cards so they can be of value for unknown casualty (or amnesiac) identification (when no passenger/victim list from a flight, etc., is known).

Why Fingerprint Identification?

Fingerprints offer an infallible means of personal identification. That is the essential explanation for their having supplanted other methods of establishing the identities of criminals reluctant to admit previous arrests. Other personal characteristics change - fingerprints do not.

In earlier civilizations, branding and even maiming were used to mark the criminal for what he was. The thief was deprived of the hand which committed the thievery. The Romans employed the tattoo needle to identify and prevent desertion of mercenary soldiers.

More recently, law enforcement officers with extraordinary visual memories, so-called "camera eyes," identified old offenders by sight. Photography lessened the burden on memory but was not the answer to the criminal identification problem. Personal appearances change.

Around 1870 a French anthropologist devised a system to measure and record the dimensions of certain bony parts of the body. These measurements were reduced to a formula that, theoretically, would apply only to one person and would not change during his/her adult life.

This Bertillon System, named after its inventor, Alphonse Bertillon, was generally accepted for thirty years. But it never recovered from the events of 1903, when a man named Will West was sentenced to the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. You see, there was already a prisoner at the penitentiary at the time, whose Bertillon measurements were nearly exact, and his name was William West.

Upon an investigation, there were indeed two men. They looked exactly alike, but were allegedly not related. Their names were Will and William West respectively. Their Bertillon measurements were close enough to identify them as the same person. However, a fingerprint comparison quickly and correctly identified them as two different people. The West men were apparently identical twin brothers per indications in later discovered prison records citing correspondence from the same immediate family relatives.

 Photographs as Evidence

From documenting a homicide scene to recording the detail of a bite mark, photographs can communicate more about crime scenes and the appearance of evidence than the written report. Photography is a valuable tool for recording the crime scene and explaining evidence to others.

The principal requirements to admit a photograph (digital or film-based) into evidence are relevance and authentication. Unless the photograph is admitted by the stipulation of both parties, the party attempting to admit the photograph into evidence must be prepared to offer testimony that the photograph is an accurate representation of the scene. This usually means someone must testify that the photograph accurately portrays the scene as viewed by that witness.



Over the past two decades in the field of ever-changing technology the most significant advances have been introduced into the analytical (laboratory examination of physical evidence) fields. It is important for the crime scene investigator or evidence recovery technician to be well read and keep abreast of these ever-changing techniques and methods in technology. We have to be aware and prepared to answer to the challenge.

What the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) has done for fingerprint identification, The National Firearms and Projectile Database (DRUGFIRE) is doing for firearms identification, and now The Combined DNA Index Systems (CODIS) is having a dramatic influence on the comparison of blood and other tissue identification. The old standard serological testing labs are giving way to the new modern Forensic Biology section.

Until recently the issues of scrutiny and challenge in DNA technology was the laboratory analysis procedures. However that is about to change dramatically with a national standardization system in place. The sensitivity of this new exciting technology will pivot the focus and attention more to the on scene physical evidence collection and recovery methods and procedures.

Identifying people -- older methods

"Who did what to whom, when?" This question is at the heart of many legal proceedings. For example, placing criminal suspects and victims at a crime scene is one reason that identifying people is a common task in legal matters.

Over the past 150 years, forensic scientists have developed several methods to identify persons from physical evidence left behind at a crime scene or disaster scene:

hair -- With a microscope, it's possible to get some indication of age, sex, and race from hair. Comparing hairs allows police to identify people, with an error rate of only one in 4500 .

bone -- Age, sex, race, and sometimes medical history can be determined from bones.

fingerprints -- Fingerprint evidence was introduced in the late 1800s despite much skepticism. It took decades before fingerprints were routinely used in police and court matters.

footprints -- For years, the US Air Force has recorded the footprints of its pilots and other aircrew members before they begin their flying careers. Because it is protected by a boot, the foot is more likely to be intact after an airplane crash than the fingers are.

blood -- The four blood groups (A, B, O, AB) were discovered in 1900. Blood typing, based on these four groups, can be a powerful tool for resolving legal matters. But with only four possibilities per person, there are many cases in which blood typing is not helpful. More blood groups have been discovered over the past 100 years, but even these cannot provide the same level of identification as DNA testing.

Identifying people -- newer methods

Current DNA technology allows any individual to be distinguished from all other individuals, living or dead (except an identical twin).

DNA can be recovered from blood, semen, saliva, bone, teeth, or microscopic flecks of skin or other tissues. A cigarette butt casually discarded at a crime scene has enough DNA-containing saliva on it for analysis. So does the postage stamp or the flap of the envelope you just licked. A single hair with attached root is also adequate.

Because DNA analysis identifies individuals with such a great degree of accuracy, the FBI recently launched CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), a database that contains the genetic description of 250,000 convicted felons. The database also contains data from 4600 DNA samples left at scenes of unsolved crimes. CODIS will provide a powerful new resource in the war against crime and criminals. It will also provide a refuge for the innocent, when the accused DNA does not match the criminal's DNA from the crime scene.

Uses of DNA forensic science in criminal matters to identify potential criminal suspects

In 1987, DNA screening was used in a landmark case in Leicestershire, England, to clear an innocent 17-year-old boy of the rape and murder of two girls. After analyzing the

DNA of all 5000 men in three villages, the guilty person was found and convicted. Since then, thousands of criminals have been convicted on the basis of DNA evidence, mostly in murder and rape cases

To exonerate persons wrongly accused of crimes

DNA fingerprinting can show that an accused suspect, or even a convicted suspect, was not the person who left DNA evidence at the scene of the crime. The FBI has found that DNA analysis exonerates one out of every three suspects.

The Innocence Project in New York uses DNA analysis to show whether or not convicted people might have been wrongly accused. The project has exonerated 35 people in New York between 1992 and 1998. Six of those people were taken off death row as a result of new DNA evidence. And in 11 of those cases, the DNA evidence not only freed an innocent person wrongly accused, but identified the real perpetrator.

FBI's DNA web page

Many links to DNA and forensic sites plus genetics sites

Colorado State University general and medical genetics handbook web page