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.


jurassicpork said...

Thanks for this, Jan. This is endlessly fascinating stuff. I never knew of Twain's (marginal) contribution to fingerprinting. I also never knew that Fauld had approached Scotland Yard with his theory of fingerprinting and rejected two years before Jack the Ripper (I believe the first conviction based on fingerprints wasn't until 1902). I wonder if the Met was embarrassed by this omission in judgment in retrospect.

In fact, I'm in the latter stages of a Jack the Ripper novel entitled TATTERDEMALION featuring Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Freud and Arthur Conan-Doyle. I may find a way to make use of this info either in the last chapters or during the rewrite.

Sarah Malia said...

Where is Part 3 of Mark Twain & Fingerprinting? I believe you were going to discuss Puddin’head Wilson for instance. Thanks. SM

Jan Burke said...

Sarah, thank you! I apparently became distracted. Clearly something that happens all the time. I will try to get that posted this week!