Sunday, September 22, 2013

Mark Twain and Fingerprints, part 2

How did Mark Twain learn about fingerprints almost a decade before Sir Francis Galton’s Finger Prints was published in 1892?

As far as I can tell, the answer is, no one knows for sure.  Let’s look at a few of the possibilities.

First, some general background on the history of criminal identification.

Throughout the 19th century, police departments were established and methods of catching criminals became more formalized.  (You can learn more about this by listening to my interview with Leslie S. Klinger for Crime and Science Radio.) Science and technology were used in ways they had never been used before to aid authorities in determining what had happened at crime scenes, the evaluation of evidence, and the identification of criminals.

At the beginning of these changes is Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), one of the most colorful and fascinating characters in the history of law enforcement.  Vidocq was a former criminal who established the French Sûreté Nationale, and began the first systematic efforts to identify criminals and keep records on them.  Vidocq pioneered so many new methods of understanding and apprehending criminals — including describing modus operandi, using the science of ballistics, taking footwear impressions with plaster casts, establishing the first private detective agency, doing undercover work and more — he is considered to be the father of modern criminology.  His autobiography was widely read, and his life served as an inspiration for characters in works by Balzac (Pere Goriot), Hugo (Les Miserables), and Dickens (Great Expectations) and his work was lauded by Poe and Melville.  

Unfortunately, Vidocq’s card system of known criminals depended in large part on Vidocq’s own remarkable memory.  It became unmanageable once he was no longer part of the Sûreté.  The task of reorganizing the files eventually fell to Alphonse Bertillion (1853-1914) — there were over five million of them when he was given the assignment.

Bertillon's self-portrait as a mugshot, 1900. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days) and it was first published before 1978 without complying with U.S. copyright formalities or after 1978 without copyright notice and it was in the public domain in its home country on the URAA date (January 1, 1996 for most countries).

He improved the "mug shot" — taking the work away from commercial photographers who often failed to capture useful images and implementing a standardized way to photograph arrestees and record information about them.  He also standardized and improved methods of crime scene photography.  What he is most famous for, however, is the biometric system that bears his name, Bertillionage.

Bertillion's father was a statistician and anthropologist, and a colleague of Belgian mathematician and social statistician Lambert Quetelet. Quetelet had calculated that the chances against two people being the same height were four to one. Bertillion reasoned that adding precise, additional measurements would bring the likelihood of two people having those same measurements into the neighborhood of 1 in 4,000,000.  A filing system based on those measurements would make it easier to locate information on criminals who matched them.

Although his ideas were initially rejected by the chief of police, he was eventually given a chance to prove them, and did so very successfully, identifying hundreds of arrestees who gave aliases with previous records.  By 1884, his system was adopted throughout the French prison system. Soon his system was quickly adopted in much of Europe and the U.S. (England was a holdout).  

As you can see from the illustration below, found in Identification Anthropométrique, his 1893 book on his method, these many measurements required a lot of precise work by the measurer and a degree of cooperation from the arrestee that might be difficult to obtain.

Frontisepiece from Alphonse Bertillon's ''Identification anthropométrique'' (1893), demonstrating the measurements one takes for his anthropometric identification system. Category:Anthropometry.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States (and not published in the U.S. within 30 days) and it was first published before 1978 without complying with U.S. copyright formalities or after 1978 without copyright notice and it was in the public domain in its home country on the URAA date (January 1, 1996 for most countries).

This was the state of criminal identification at about the time Twain wrote "A Thumb-Print."  

Fingerprints however, were not unknown.

I mentioned a few ancient references in yesterday's post.

In more recent times, fingerprints had been observed and written about by Europeans in the late 17the century.  In 1684, Dr. Nehemiah Grew published a paper on these friction ridges in the proceedings of the Royal Society of London. An anatomy professor at the University of Bologna, Marcello Malpighi wrote a treatise in 1686, and noted fingerprint ridges, spirals and loops.  Neither Grew nor Malpighi — nor any others making similar observations — spoke of the individuality or unchanging nature of fingerprints, and no one had yet suggested their use for identification.

In 1858, a British magistrate in India, Sir William James Herschel (1833-1917), began requiring handprints on contracts, but did not do so based on any scientific study — he was essentially relying on local superstitious beliefs about leaving one's handprint on a piece of paper.  As his collection grew, though, he became convinced that fingerprints were unique and permanent.  

To my mind, one of the most interesting possibilities of a source for Twain's interest is French, in part because in his story his narrator credits a French prison keeper for telling him about thumbprints. 

As noted by fingerprint expert Ed German on his website, in 1863, "Professor Paul-Jean Coulier, of Val-de-Grâce in Paris, published his observations that (latent) fingerprints can be developed on paper by iodine fuming, explains how to preserve (fix) such developed impressions and mentions the potential for identifying suspects' fingerprints by use of a magnifying glass."

Twain spoke French — although he joked about his abilities

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

The Innocents Abroad

— he translated The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County into French.

Another possible source of information was published in Nature  in 1880, closer to the time of the publication of Life on the Mississippi.  

Dr. Henry Faulds, the British Surgeon-Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo, had noticed fingerprint marks on ancient Japanese pottery and began to study them.  He sent notes to Charles Darwin about fingerprints, who passed them on to his cousin, Francis Galton, who, perhaps distracted by his own many scientific pursuits, passed the letter on to the Royal Anthropological Society and apparently (and unfortunately) forgot about it.

 In 1880, Faulds published a paper in Nature suggesting that fingerprints could be used to catch criminals and a means by which this could be done — and included a few ideas that were less scientific, such as the possibility of determining race through a fingerprint.*  

Not long after this article appeared, a letter from Herschel appeared in the same publication, telling of his use of fingerprints in place of  signatures for over twenty years, and politely doubting the ability to use them to determine race.

In 1886, three years after the publication of Twain's tale and during a time when Bertillonage was making headlines, Faulds offered his system to Scotland Yard, which turned him down.  Two years later, delivering a paper before the Royal Society on fingerprints, Galton erroneously credited Herschel as being prior Faulds in suggesting the forensic use of fingerprints.  This led to a bitter controversy which still finds various partisans slugging it out verbally.

There is one more possible source of information for Twain.  In 1877, Thomas Taylor (1820–1910), a microscopist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gave a lecture concerning prints and their possible applications concerning crime. Taylor proposed the idea of using bloody prints found at crime scenes as a means to identify suspects. The lecture was published in the July 1877 issue of The American Journal of Microscopy and Popular Science (Ashbaugh, 1999, p 26).  An important lecture, though you'll seldom find mention of this in histories of fingerprinting, and whether Twain knew of the lecture or the journal is unknown.

Well...I haven't gotten to Puddin'Head Wilson yet, so we'll go for part 3!

*There are those who are now researching methods which would supply phenotypes and other information about an individual from the oils left behind with a fingerprint, but this is not, of course, what Faulds envisioned.

Some additional links
Jim Fisher's excellent article about Bertillion.
The NCJRS's publication on fingerprinting includes a wonderful history section.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mark Twain and Fingerprints: Part 1

“When I was a youth, I knew an old Frenchman who had been a prison-keeper for thirty years, and he told me that there was one thing about a person which never changed, from the cradle to the grave – the lines in the ball of the thumb; and he said that these lines were never exactly alike in the thumbs of any two human beings.”

— From “A Thumb-Print and What Came of It,” one of the stories serialized in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883.

Today on Crime and Science Radio, during my interview with Leslie S. Klinger about Sherlock Holmes and forensic sciencewe briefly mentioned Mark Twain's use of fingerprints.  (You can listen to the show here:)

I wanted to expand on that mention of Twain, and it seems it will take more than one blog post to do it.  So here's Part 1!

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was one of the earliest writers to make use of fingerprints in a story.  If you mention this to his devoted readers, most will quickly say, “Yes!  In Puddin’head Wilson!”

I will get to Puddin’head Wilson a little later, but it is not the first work in which Twain uses the uniqueness of fingerprints as an element of the story’s plot.  That honor goes to “A Thumb-Print,” one of the stories in Life on the Mississippi. In it, a thumbprint leads to the identification of a murderer. For a number of reasons, Twain’s use of fingerprints in “A Thumb-Print” is remarkable. 

In 1883, as shown by the passage quoted above, Twain wrote that a thumbprint was unique to an individual, and did not change. 

These are two essential characteristics.

Solving crimes is in part a matter of identification of the individuals involved and the exclusion of individuals not involved:  These bones belong to this individual, they cannot be the bones of that individual.  This person was here, and not this personHere are the people who might have done this.  These are the people who could not have done this.  The  greater the degree to which a trait can be associated with one individual and no others, the stronger proof it offers as evidence.

Let's say there is a bank robbery.  Witnesses say the robber has long, red hair and was wearing dark clothing. 

Police know that millions of people have red hair and a good number of those may also own dark clothing.  A smaller percentage of those millions may have been able to be at the bank at that time, but this will still be a very large group. While the witnesses’ descriptions may be of help in immediately following a suspect from a scene, or prove valuable if the robber is caught some other way, they don't narrow the field much.

One other important element of determining identification is mutability.  Can this trait be changed, or appear to be changed?   In our example above, hair can be dyed and cut, clothing can be easily changed.  So again, the witnesses description quickly loses value.

“In these days, we photograph the new criminal, and hang his picture in the Rogue’s Gallery for future reference; but that Frenchman, in his day, used to take a print of the ball of a new prisoner’s thumb and put that away for future reference.  He always said that pictures were no good — future disguises could make them useless; ‘The thumb’s the only sure thing,’ said he; ‘you can’t disguise that.’ And he used to prove his theory too, on my friends and acquaintances; it always succeeded.” 
— from "A Thumb-Print and What Came of It."

Today we would ask, “Did the killer leave any DNA or fingerprints at the scene of the crime?”  Thanks to news stories, high profile cases, and television dramas about forensic science, we accept these forms of evidence, often without thinking much about them.

Most of us are aware that DNA was not discovered by scientists until the mid-20th century and wasn’t in use forensically until late in that century.  We know that the use of fingerprints has been around longer, but have little idea of the story of the development of their use to catch and convict criminals.  

At the time Twain wrote "A Thumb-Print," if you talked to the average person on the street and said that if a criminal touched something with an ungloved hand, he might leave a uniquely identifying mark that could lead to his conviction, you'd have probably been met with disbelief.  This would have sounded like voodoo to most of his contemporaries.  

When Mark Twain was born in 1835, fingerprints were unknown in the western world as a means of catching criminals.  Although a treatise on the potential for using them in this way written in about 200 B.C. in China, and we know that fingerprints were used as signatures in Babylon dating back to 1792-1750 B.C., by the early 19th century these were forgotten lore in most of the world.  During most of Twain’s lifetime, there was no system in place anywhere for the scientific, forensic use of fingerprints. 

Until very late in the 19th century, even those who were studying scientific approaches to catching criminals were largely unaware of the potential of fingerprints, and no system of classification of fingerprints had been established in law enforcement organizations.

The first scientific treatise on the subject to be written in English and to become widely known was not published until 1892 — Sir Francis Galton’s Finger Prints.

1892.  Nine years after the publication of “A Thumb-Print.”

How did Twain know?  
More on the history of the forensic use of fingerprints. 
And links for those who want to know more.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Crime and Science Radio Episode 1, "Hollywood Storytelling: Science Fact or Make Believe?"

Dressed in a uniform typically worn by crime scene investigators, this scientist is prepared to perform the famous and reliable Taste Test on an Unknown Substance.

As I mentioned in my last post, Dr. D.P. (Doug) Lyle and I are hosting a new online radio show, "Crime and Science Radio," in connection with Suspense Magazine.  "Hollywood Storytelling: Science Fact or Make Believe?" is our first episode, and it is now up and available for listening.

All of us who watch forensic science shows on television, who watch movies about crimes, and who read crime fiction have ideas about how crime scenes are processed, what labs can do, how police and forensic scientists and medical examiners behave during investigations.  We believe we know what forensic labs look like even though few of us have been inside one, and we think we know what forensic science can determine about evidence.  We believe we know how deaths are investigated and what sort of experts are doing that work.

Most likely, we're wrong.

Our first show explores some of the most common myths and misconceptions about crime scene processing, death investigation, and forensic science that come from ideas we may have received from Hollywood.

There are three easy ways to listen to the show.  With your computer's sound on:

1) click on the link to Crime and Science Radio, then click on the "listen now"button.

2) Since the show is a podcast, you can also find us on iTunes, which makes it easy to listen to on a computer, smart phone, or iPad. In the iTunes store, search for Crime and Science Radio, and either click on the icon for Suspense Magazine, or look for the show from Suspense Radio in the search results.  The episodes are free.  If you subscribe, you'll get all our shows and Suspense Magazine's author interviews delivered as soon as they become available.

3) go to BlogTalkRadio's Website and listen to the show here.

After each episode, we'll be posting useful links and other information that will help you further explore that episode's topics.   I've posted the ones from the first episode below.

I just finished recording the next episode, with Sherlock Holmes expert Leslie S. Klinger.  We'll be talking about forensic science in Sherlock Holmes, and taking a historical view of criminal investigation in the age of the Victorians.  Episode 2 will be available starting Saturday, September 21 at 10 AM Pacific Time.

Places you can learn more about the topics discussed on Episode 1:
ProPublica Post-Mortem series—an excellent look at reality of death investigation

Photo above: 
© Simone Van Den Berg |