Convicted by Fingerprint: A 1910 Murder Trial Makes History

By | January 22, 2019

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A policeman takes a fingerprint at an Interpol facility in Lima on August 29, 2018. Source: (CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)

On September 19, 1910, Thomas Jennings, who had just gotten out of jail six weeks earlier, entered the Chicago home of Clarence Hiller, intent on robbing the place. But Hiller’s wife awoke and screamed, alerting her husband to the intruder. A fight ensued and shots were fired. Hiller lay dead and Jennings fled the scene. But he left behind one important clue that would eventually lead to his murder conviction…a fingerprint. Jennings’ trial was the first one in the United States in which a fingerprint, a new technology, was used as evidence. Let’s look at the trial and the history of fingerprinting. 

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The Uniqueness of Fingerprints was Old News

Curious humans have long stared at the lines and ridges on their fingertips and compared them to others. As far back as the 14th century, a Persian doctor noted that no two fingerprints were alike. In 1686, a professor of anatomy named Marcello Malpighi wrote about the ridges, loops, and spirals in individual fingerprints, but did not consider using them as an identification technique. Likewise, another anatomy professor, John Evangelist Purkinji published his findings on fingerprints in 1823, remarking on nine distinct patterns. It wasn’t until 1856 that fingerprinting was first used as a mark of identification. Sir William Hershel working as a magistrate in India, had natives affix their palm print, and later just a fingerprint, to contracts in lieu of signing them to make them legally binding. Hershel amasses the first large-scale collection of fingerprints and realized that fingerprints are unique to a person and do not change over the course of a lifetime, making them ideal for identification.