Ape-men and dactyloscopy

Friday, April 13th, 2018

When I first read Tarzan of the Apes years ago, I was surprised by a number of things, including how fingerprints were still seen as cutting-edge science in a novel from 1912:

The ape-man was anxious to proceed to America, but D’Arnot insisted that he must accompany him to Paris first, nor would he divulge the nature of the urgent necessity upon which he based his demand.

One of the first things which D’Arnot accomplished after their arrival was to arrange to visit a high official of the police department, an old friend; and to take Tarzan with him.

Adroitly D’Arnot led the conversation from point to point until the policeman had explained to the interested Tarzan many of the methods in vogue for apprehending and identifying criminals.

Not the least interesting to Tarzan was the part played by finger prints in this fascinating science.

“But of what value are these imprints,” asked Tarzan, “when, after a few years the lines upon the fingers are entirely changed by the wearing out of the old tissue and the growth of new?”

“The lines never change,” replied the official. “From infancy to senility the fingerprints of an individual change only in size, except as injuries alter the loops and whorls. But if imprints have been taken of the thumb and four fingers of both hands one must needs lose all entirely to escape identification.”

“It is marvelous,” exclaimed D’Arnot. “I wonder what the lines upon my own fingers may resemble.”

“We can soon see,” replied the police officer, and ringing a bell he summoned an assistant to whom he issued a few directions.

The man left the room, but presently returned with a little hardwood box which he placed on his superior’s desk.

“Now,” said the officer, “you shall have your fingerprints in a second.”

He drew from the little case a square of plate glass, a little tube of thick ink, a rubber roller, and a few snowy white cards.

Squeezing a drop of ink onto the glass, he spread it back and forth with the rubber roller until the entire surface of the glass was covered to his satisfaction with a very thin and uniform layer of ink.

“Place the four fingers of your right hand upon the glass, thus,” he said to D’Arnot. “Now the thumb. That is right. Now place them in just the same position upon this card, here, no–a little to the right. We must leave room for the thumb and the fingers of the left hand. There, that’s it. Now the same with the left.”

“Come, Tarzan,” cried D’Arnot, “let’s see what your whorls look like.”

Tarzan complied readily, asking many questions of the officer during the operation.

“Do fingerprints show racial characteristics?” he asked. “Could you determine, for example, solely from fingerprints whether the subject was Negro or Caucasian?”

“I think not,” replied the officer.

“Could the finger prints of an ape be detected from those of a man?”

“Probably, because the ape’s would be far simpler than those of the higher organism.”

“But a cross between an ape and a man might show the characteristics of either progenitor?” continued Tarzan.

“Yes, I should think likely,” responded the official; “but the science has not progressed sufficiently to render it exact enough in such matters. I should hate to trust its findings further than to differentiate between individuals. There it is absolute. No two people born into the world probably have ever had identical lines upon all their digits. It is very doubtful if any single fingerprint will ever be exactly duplicated by any finger other than the one which originally made it.”

“Does the comparison require much time or labor?” asked D’Arnot.

“Ordinarily but a few moments, if the impressions are distinct.”

One reason this all surprised me was that I was certain I’d read about Sherlock Holmes using fingerprints in much older stories — but Holmes was ahead of his time, and the stories weren’t quite as old as I’d assumed:

Conan Doyle made Holmes a man of science and an innovator of forensic methods. Holmes is so much at the forefront of detection that he has authored several monographs on crime-solving techniques. In several instances the extremely well-read Conan Doyle depicted Holmes using methods years before they were adopted by official police forces in both Britain and America.

Holmes was quick to realize the value of fingerprint evidence. The first case in which fingerprints are mentioned is The Sign of the Four (1890); Scotland Yard did not begin to use fingerprints until 1901. Thirty-six years later in the 55th story, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926), fingerprints still figure in detection. In “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” (1903), the appearance of a fingerprint is the key piece of evidence in the solution of the crime. It is interesting to note that Conan Doyle chose to have Holmes use fingerprints but not Bertillonage (also called anthropometry), the system of identification invented by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris that pivoted on measuring 12 characteristics of the body. The two methods competed for forensic ascendancy for many years. By having Holmes use fingerprints rather than Bertillonage, the astute Conan Doyle picked the method with the soundest scientific future.

Fingerprints have a long history:

Jan Evangelista Purkinje (1787–1869), a Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published a thesis in 1823 discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but he did not mention any possibility of using fingerprints to identify people.

In 1840, following the murder of Lord William Russell, a provincial doctor, Robert Blake Overton, wrote to Scotland Yard suggesting checking for fingerprints but the suggestion, though followed up, did not lead to their routine use by the police for another 50 years.

Some years later, the German anatomist Georg von Meissner (1829–1905) studied friction ridges, and five years after this, in 1858, Sir William James Herschel initiated fingerprinting in India. In 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta) he instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures and he registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. Herschel also fingerprinted prisoners upon sentencing to prevent various frauds that were attempted in order to avoid serving a prison sentence.

In 1863, Paul-Jean Coulier (1824–1890), professor for chemistry and hygiene at the medical and pharmaceutical school of the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris, discovered that iodine fumes can reveal fingerprints on paper.

In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish surgeon in a Tokyo hospital, published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature, discussing the usefulness of fingerprints for identification and proposing a method to record them with printing ink. He also established their first classification and was also the first to identify fingerprints left on a vial. Returning to the UK in 1886, he offered the concept to the Metropolitan Police in London but it was dismissed at that time.

Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin with a description of his method but, too old and ill to work on it, Darwin gave the information to his cousin, Francis Galton, who was interested in anthropology. Having been thus inspired to study fingerprints for ten years, Galton published a detailed statistical model of fingerprint analysis and identification and encouraged its use in forensic science in his book Finger Prints. He had calculated that the chance of a “false positive” (two different individuals having the same fingerprints) was about 1 in 64 billion.

Juan Vucetich, an Argentine chief police officer, created the first method of recording the fingerprints of individuals on file, associating these fingerprints to the anthropometric system of Alphonse Bertillon, who had created, in 1879, a system to identify individuals by anthropometric photographs and associated quantitative descriptions. In 1892, after studying Galton’s pattern types, Vucetich set up the world’s first fingerprint bureau. In that same year, Francisca Rojas of Necochea, was found in a house with neck injuries, whilst her two sons were found dead with their throats cut. Rojas accused a neighbour, but despite brutal interrogation, this neighbour would not confess to the crimes. Inspector Alvarez, a colleague of Vucetich, went to the scene and found a bloody thumb mark on a door. When it was compared with Rojas’ prints, it was found to be identical with her right thumb. She then confessed to the murder of her sons.

Women clerical employees of the Los Angeles Police Department being fingerprinted and photographed in 1928.
A Fingerprint Bureau was established in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, in 1897, after the Council of the Governor General approved a committee report that fingerprints should be used for the classification of criminal records. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau, before it became the first Fingerprint Bureau in the world, were Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose were Indian fingerprint experts who have been credited with the primary development of a fingerprint classification system eventually named after their supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry.

The Henry Classification System, co-devised by Haque and Bose, was accepted in England and Wales when the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police headquarters, London, in 1901. Sir Edward Richard Henry subsequently achieved improvements in dactyloscopy.

In the United States, Dr. Henry P. DeForrest used fingerprinting in the New York Civil Service in 1902, and by 1906, New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot, an expert in the Bertillon system and a finger print advocate at Police Headquarters, introduced the fingerprinting of criminals to the United States.

The Scheffer case of 1902 is the first case of the identification, arrest and conviction of a murderer based upon fingerprint evidence. Alphonse Bertillon identified the thief and murderer Scheffer, who had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed some months before, from the fingerprints found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead. It was able to be proved in court that the fingerprints had been made after the showcase was broken. A year later, Alphonse Bertillon created a method of getting fingerprints off smooth surfaces and took a further step in the advance of dactyloscopy.


  1. Kirk says:

    Fingerprints may indeed be immutable and unique; where the problem lies is in their interpretations by the various “authorities”. I was shocked to learn that there were huge gray areas surrounding the fingerprint evidence used in many supposed “landmark” cases, and what we’ve been told may not indeed be so. Forensics is far from a rigid or accurate science, and a lot of sheer crap like “bite mark evidence” and “hair follicle evidence” ain’t accurately assessed as “evidence”.

    Even DNA is questionable–Laying aside the issues of contamination and laboratory work being flawed, there’s the tiny little problem of chimerism. If you leave DNA behind at a rape, and it’s tested against a buccal swab, who’s to say that the cell lines in your gonads are the same ones in your cheek? Likewise, blood evidence may be questionable, especially when you start looking at things like bone marrow transplants. One wonders if we haven’t released people due to “exonerating evidence” that came from parts of their bodies that didn’t leave traces at the scene.

    Knowing what I know just from a careful layman’s reading of the current literature, I don’t know that I’d be able to convict based on some of the evidence presented at many notorious cases, either in favor of or against the malefactor in question…

  2. Roger says:

    To echo the previous comment, the “science” of fingerprints has never been scientifically validated.

  3. Senexada says:

    Excellent summary. Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” (1893–4) uses fingerprints to resolve a switched-at-birth controversy that drives the plot.

    I had previously thought it was the first mention of fingerprinting in a major fictional work, but it seems that Doyle beat Twain by a few years. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Joe Smith says:

    The problem is also with partial prints. If it’s true that no two people have the same fingerprint, that doesn’t mean that two people can’t have the same partial print.

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