By Suzanne Norquist
Dusting for fingerprints is a common occurrence in modern crime dramas. What about movies set in the late 1800s or early 1900s? Did detectives use fingerprinting back then? How could this technology be useful without a massive database to match them to a person?
Ancient peoples sometimes used fingerprints and handprints for the authentication of documents. Differences in sizes and patterns could be identified. The earliest example of handprints being used as evidence comes from ancient China—the Quin Dynasty (221 to 206 B.C.). A document entitled “The Volume of Crime Scene Investigation—Burglary” describes their use.
Various researchers in Europe and America studied the biology of fingerprints in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1788, German doctor Johann Christoph Andreas Mayer wrote a book explaining that no two fingerprints were alike. It was the first time anyone recognized this fact.
Fingerprints could only be useful if they were organized and cataloged. Early researchers looked for things like circular patterns versus straight ones. In 1823, German professor Dr. Johannes E. Purkinje identified nine basic categories. They were, (1) transverse curve, (2) central longitudinal stria, (3) oblique stripe, (4) oblique loop, (5) almond whorl, (6) spiral whorl, (7) ellipse, (8) circle, and (9) double whorl. Over the years, several researchers collected and categorized fingerprints, building on Purkinje’s work.
The first recorded homicide solved by fingerprint evidence was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1892. Different suspects’ prints were compared to a bloody print left at the scene. The guilty party confessed upon seeing the evidence.
Detectives couldn’t merely hope the criminal would leave visible prints for them to find. So, fingerprint powders were developed around this time. They came in various colors for different surfaces. Early powders were mercury or graphite-based.
Before fingerprinting to solve crimes became common practice, novelists included it in their stories. Science fiction of the 1890s? Mark Twain published The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson in 1894. In it, a lawyer collected prints from townsfolk to solve a murder.
In the late 1890s, detectives worldwide began convicting criminals based on fingerprint evidence.
The year 1902 brought two breakthroughs. French scientist Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method to transfer fingerprints from surfaces to paper. And Sir Edward Henry created a detailed classification system.
The 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis featured this new technology. Fingerprint classes for law enforcement were offered. By 1911, U.S. courts accepted fingerprints as a reliable means of identification. One case went all the way to the Supreme Court. At the same time, smart criminals started wearing gloves.
Matching prints from crime scenes to existing paper records remained a laborious process. (I knew someone who did this job as late as 1990!)
The idea of fingerprinting interested the average person so much that some of the New York elite decided to use it on their calling cards instead of their names. It could enhance their social standing and make people think they were smart. Seriously?!
So, if I’m reading an 1860s crime drama, no one had better be dusting for fingerprints. However, it is reasonable in the 1890s. And, if I’m going to rob someone, I’d better wear gloves. Just kidding.
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.