Down the Rabbit Hole: Fingerprints

The first case for the British medical investigator Dr. John Thorndyke was working for the defense on what appears to be an open-and-shut case. A business man locks diamonds in his safe with a receipt. In the morning, the diamonds are gone and on the receipt is a red thumbprint. This story The Red Thumb Mark, by R. Austin Freeman was published in 1907. A story of fiction, it was written at a dynamic time of science and discovery, documenting progress in action.

Various articles reference the fact that ancient cultures recognized the difference in fingerprints but it wasn’t until the 1800s that the modern era of fingerprinting began. Britannica.com and The Fingerprint Sourcebook were two of my favorite sources. Hermann Welcker, Henry Faulds, and William James Herschel were the leaders in describing fingerprints. Sir Francis Galton built on their work, suggesting the first system for classifying fingerprints based on the common elements. His work, in turn, was used by Sir Edward R. Henry and Juan Vucetick to develop classification systems. Henry’s approach was adopted by Scotland Yard in the early 1900s and was widespread across English-speaking countries. Vucetick, from Argentina, published his system in the same time frame, which was widely adopted across Spanish-speaking countries. How complicated are fingerprints? The biometric company Touch N Go has one of the easiest to understand presentation of the common fingerprint patterns with pictures.

In the story The Red Thumb Mark, Thorndyke is faced with evidence that seems incontrovertible. He theorizes the print does belong to the suspect, but the print itself is a forgery, a fake. Funny enough, the method described in a story written in 1905 isn’t all that different from the one I found on the website WikiHow.

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