Convicted by Fingerprint: A 1910 Murder Trial Makes History
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.
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.
Jennings Left His Fingerprint on a Railing
Jennings left a clear fingerprint in the newly-painted railing at the Hiller house. Shortly after the murder of Hiller, Jennings was apprehended about a half a mile away. He was wearing ripped and bloodied clothing and carrying a revolver. Still, this was not proof that Jennings was the assailant. When the police discovered the fingerprint on the railing, they hoped they could admit it as evidence. They photographed the print and removed the railing, tagging it as evidence.
In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds devised a method for classifying fingerprints to aid in their use as an identity marker. Faulds reached out to Charles Darwin and shared his findings with him. At this time, however, Darwin was an old man in failing health. Darwin told Faulds that he could not review his work, but that his cousin, Sir Francis Galton, could. A British anthropologist, Galton threw himself into the study of fingerprints. He included Faulds’ classification system in his groundbreaking book, Fingerprints, which was published in 1892. In this work, Galton discussed how fingerprints are individual and permanent and, thus, can be used to establish identity.
An Argentinean Police Officer Identifies the First Criminal Using Fingerprints
In the early 1890s, Juan Vucetich, an official with the Argentine Police Force, started keeping a file of fingerprints, using Galton’s classification system. In 1892, a woman in Argentina murdered her own two sons and stabbed herself in the neck. She claimed she was attacked and fought with the person who killed her sons. A bloody fingerprint was left at the scene that Vucetich was able to prove belonged to the woman herself. She eventually confessed, but Vucetich had made the first positive identification of a murderer based on fingerprinting.
Jennings’ Attorneys Tried to Discredit the New Technique
At Thomas Jennings’ trial for murdering Hiller, the prosecuting attorney showed the judge and jury the fingerprint left on the railing, which they identified as Jennings’. The defense attorneys sought to have the evidence thrown out, claiming that fingerprinting was a flawed system. In an attempt to prove it was unreliable, one of the lawyers challenged the prosecution to collect a fingerprint that proved the lawyer touched a particular piece of paper. The idea backfired on the defense lawyer when the prosecution was able to lift a very clear print from the paper and positively identify it as the belonging to the lawyer.
Jennings is Found Guilty
For the members of the jury, the fingerprint was like a smoking gun that tied Thomas Jennings to the crime scene. They unanimously found him guilty of the murder of Clarence Hiller and sentenced Jennings to hang. Jennings became the first person in the United States to be convicted based on fingerprint evidence. Since then, fingerprinting has become a mainstay of criminal investigations and provides important evidence when going to trial. Although fingerprints today are collected and stored electronically, much of the same principles that Galton established in the late 1800s are still used to identify fingerprints today.
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