Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science

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Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science. By Colin Beavan. 2002. Hyperion. (ISBN 0786885289). 256 pp. Paperback. $4.99.

Most forensic textbooks allot one chapter to the history of fingerprints. Beaven offers an in-depth tour through the history of fingerprints--including major and minor cases--making the history of fingerprints read like a mystery novel. He relates the intrigues and egos of key individuals, specifically the conspiracy between Francis Galton and William Herschel to deny credit to Henry Faulds for his contributions to fingerprint science. Even though the intrigues are not necessary from a historical perspective, they certainly breathe life into what some would consider a dry topic.

The book is not intended to be an academic work. Rather, it was written to be a nonfiction work relating the changes in the criminal justice system of Europe--and later America--that led to the need for a way to easily and accurately identify criminals. Following a series of important criminal cases, the United Kingdom adopted fingerprints as a means of identification and, a few years later, so did America.

The U.K. has a bloody history of dealing with criminals, including hanging and other torturous methods. Because a dead criminal cannot commit another crime, recidivism rates were low. But death is final, so judges would mete out merciful sentences, such as a period of imprisonment, for minor criminals. This led to the creation of prisons. Because criminals were being released back into society, rather than being buried, society became aware of the repeat offender. Parliament decreed that repeat offenders should be given harsher punishments, but police did not have a reliable means of identifying criminals. Repeat offenders could change their name to avoid harsher sentences.

For the next 20 years, several men struggled to devise a reliable system for identification. Alfonse Bertillion applied anthropological techniques for describing populations to the description of criminals. Although this later proved to be a flawed technique, it achieved initial success. The use of eyewitness testimony proved the fallibility of someone's ability to distinguish between two people who look similar. Adolf Beck, a wealthy copper-mine owner, was convicted of robbery by eyewitness testimony. After he served five years in jail, it was later determined that someone else, who looked similar, was guilty. Fingerprints can distinguish between two people who look alike--even twins.

Herschel worked as Inspector General in India and used fingerprints as a means of identifying the Indian population to decrease rebellion against the Crown. …