Division of Criminal Justice Services

Clara Parsons

Florence de Forest was 24 in 1893 when she and Frederick Duel took on the task of setting up the State's Bertillon System. For 21 years she remained in charge of the Bureau until a former Civil Service law which forbade married couples from working together forced her resignation.

On July 31, 1914, Miss de Forest and Frederick Duel were married. The following day she relinquished her position to Clara Parsons.

Clara Parsons Miss Parsons was born in Greenwich, New York, on March 29, 1878, to William and Susie Parsons. Her father, a house painter, died when Clara was 18, forcing her mother to take a job as a housekeeper.

While her two younger sisters found work in local factories, Miss Parsons went on to the Albany Business College to prepare for a clerical career. She worked in a laboratory in Lebanon, New York, and as a stenographer for a legal firm in Glens Falls before returning to Albany to become auditor in the Hampton Hotel.

Six months later, in June 1908, a stenographer position opened in the State Prison Department. She took the job; it paid 40 dollars a month.

Miss Parson was energetic, intelligent and ambitious and soon mastered the Bertillon System. Although clearly the most capable employee at the time of Miss de Forest's retirement, it was most likely her seniority rather than her abilities which led to her appointment as Head Bertillon Clerk.

The promotion elevated her salary to 100 dollars per month and enabled her to move her mother and sisters to Albany, where they lived together in a house on Lark Street.

Miss Parsons was a slight woman but possessed a powerful personality and a fiery temperament. She harbored an abiding mistrust and dislike of men, and refused to hire anyone but women for her department. Captain Parke was particularly disliked by Miss Parsons as someone who "did not fit into the pattern."

Despite her feelings, she gained the respect of all the men who worked with her and all the women who worked for her. She was conscientious and honest, polite and businesslike, a leader who worked right beside her employees.

Although fingerprinting had become the official means of identification in 1913, the Bertillon indexers remained reluctant to embrace the new system. Those with the least seniority classified fingerprints and, as Miss Parsons was the most senior indexer, she did not concern herself with anything beyond the Bertillon files.

In 1918, when the Prison Department was reorganized, the fingerprint and Bertillon files were combined into one bureau and Miss Parsons was promoted to Bureau Chief. All State Prisons were told to record Bertillon measurements on the fingerprint cards designed by Edward Parke. The old-style Bertillon cards would no longer be accepted at the central office for filing.

It was at this time that Miss Parsons took up the study of fingerprints. She soon became an avid proponent of the system. She lectured extensively on the subject, and devoted her life to the promotion of fingerprint identification. She regretted the fact that fingerprints were generally associated with criminal behavior and led the movement for universal fingerprinting.

In 1928 the Prison Department was reorganized again and was renamed the Department of Corrections. The Bureau of Identification expanded into the Division of Identification and its files moved from the Plaza Building on Broadway, where they had been housed for just over a year, to 11 North Pearl Street.

Laws passed that year expanded the range of fingerprintable offenses, and the annual influx of cards rose from 20,000 to 53,000.

The identification files moved again, in 1930, to the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building, taking up the entire 17th floor.

By then, the Division of Identification was receiving 64,000 prints a year. The 28 employees could classify and file only about half that number per year, and the backlog grew to unmanageable proportions. Miss Parsons' response was to work harder and longer.

In 1931, the Division stopped the recording of Bertillon measurements. In commemoration of the event, Miss Parsons wrote a brief history about the introduction of identification systems into New York State. In her essay, she repeatedly professed her belief that the Bertillon files would always remain a part of the State's Identification Bureau. Captain James Parke was mentioned only briefly and never identified as the author of the fingerprint system. Edward Parke's contributions were entirely omitted.

By the 1930's, New York's Division of Identification was world renowned and Miss Parsons had risen to national prominence among identification professionals. Her success, however, was not enough to gain the respect she deserved.

On Friday, January 31, 1936, Miss Parsons was engaged to lecture on fingerprint identification at the Rotary Club in Albany. This was an unprecedented honor as the Rotarians were an all-male organization.

It was reported that, upon arriving at the club, Miss Parsons was told to enter through a rear door. The club's newsletter, published prior to and following her visit, prominently mentioned Sergeant William Cashin (a student of Miss Parsons' who assisted her in the demonstrations), but barely mentioned the presence of the main speaker.

Less than a month later, on February 21, while giving another lecture at the Friendship House of the First Lutheran Church of Albany, Miss Parsons suffered a brain hemorrhage and died within the hour.

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