How did Mark Twain learn about fingerprints almost a decade before Sir Francis Galton’s Finger Prints was published in 1892?
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).
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.
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.*
Well...I haven't gotten to Puddin'Head Wilson yet, so we'll go for part 3!
Some additional links
Jim Fisher's excellent article about Bertillion.
The NCJRS's publication on fingerprinting includes a wonderful history section.