Division of Criminal Justice Services

The Fingerprint System

Increased experience with anthropometric identification quickly revealed to New York's Bertillon Indexers what other users of the system had already discovered: Bertillon's method of identification contained significant room for improvement.

Although 243 basic categories were plenty for an agency handling 5,000 to 10,000 records, when the 50,000 mark was reached and passed, New York's Bertillon Indexers found themselves searching through categories containing 200 or more cards. The time required to check for duplicate records increased from a few minutes to several hours.

Another problem was the inaccuracy of the measurements themselves. This was due to the inexperience or incompetence of the examiners, as well as the criminals' refusal to wait until they attained full adulthood, and thus their most stable measurements, before they began committing crimes.

By the turn of the century, supplementing Bertillon's original system with additional anthropometric subclassifications was common practice, and it was for the purpose of studying these enhancements that Chief Clerk Charles K. Baker was once again called upon to travel to Europe.

Baker made this trip in the summer of 1902 with Dr. R. B. Lamb, Superintendent of Dannemora State Hospital. For three days, they studied under Bertillon at his "School for Detectives" in Paris. Then, upon hearing that fingerprints had superseded the Bertillon method in Great Britain, they set out for England.

Sir Herchel The English had begun using fingerprints in July of 1858, when Sir William Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly District in Jungipoor, India, reached his limit of frustration with the dishonesty of the natives. On a whim, and with no thought toward personal identification, Herschel had Rajyadhar Konai, a local businessman, impress his hand print on the back of a contract.

Contract The idea was merely ". . . to frighten [him] out of all thought of repudiating his signature." The native was suitably impressed, and Herschel made a habit of requiring palm prints -- and later, simply the prints of the right index and middle fingers -- on every contract made with the locals. Personal contact with the document, they believed, made the contract more binding than if they simply signed it. Thus, the first wide-scale, modern-day use of fingerprints was predicated, not upon scientific evidence, but upon superstitious beliefs.

However, as his fingerprint collection grew, Herschel began to note that the inked impressions could prove or disprove identity. While his experience with fingerprinting was admittedly limited, Sir Herschel's private conviction that each fingerprint was unique to the individual, as well as permanent throughout that individual's life, inspired him to expand their use.

Dr. Faulds During the 1870's, Dr. Henry Faulds, the British Surgeon-Superintendent of Tsukiji Hospital in Tokyo, Japan, took up the study of "skin-furrows" after noticing finger marks on specimens of "prehistoric" pottery. A learned and industrious man, Dr. Faulds not only recognized the importance of fingerprints as a means of identification, but devised a method of classification as well.

In 1880, Faulds forwarded an explanation of his classification system and a sample of the forms he had designed for recording inked impressions to Sir Charles Darwin. Darwin, in advanced age and ill health, informed Dr. Faulds that he could be of no assistance to him, but promised to pass the materials on to his cousin, Francis Galton.

Sir Galton Sir Galton was occupied by other scientific projects at the time and displayed little interest in the study of fingerprints until 1888, when he was asked to present a lecture on personal identification to the Royal Institute.

As the anthropometric system was the only known means of identification, Bertillonage was to be the principal object of the lecture. However, "wishing to treat the subject generally, and having a vague knowledge of the value sometimes assigned to finger marks," Galton began to make inquiries concerning the use of fingerprints.

A letter to the scientific journal Nature requesting information on the subject was forwarded to Sir Herschel, who placed his collection of fingerprint data at the scientist's disposal.

Galton's primary interest in fingerprints was as an aid in determining heredity and racial background. While he soon discovered that fingerprints offered no firm clues to an individual's intelligence or genetic history, he was able to prove scientifically what Herschel and Faulds already suspected: that fingerprints do not change over the course of an individual's lifetime, and no two fingerprints are exactly the same. According to his calculations, the odds of two individual fingerprints being the same were 1 in 64 billion.

Galton designed a form for recording inked fingerprint impressions and defined three main pattern types: loops, those patterns tend to curve back upon themselves; whorls, those patterns tend to be circular; and arches, those patterns which form no loops or circles.

Each of the ten fingers, depending on its pattern type, was labeled with an L, W, or A. The letters representing the patterns in the right hand's index, middle and ring fingers were grouped together, followed by the letters representing the patterns in the corresponding fingers of the left hand. These letters were then followed by the letters representing the patterns in the right thumb and little finger and the left thumb and little finger.

A person with the fingerprint patterns Loop, Loop, Arch, Whorl, Loop in the right hand and Whorl, Loop, Whorl, Loop, Loop in the left hand would, under this system, have a classification of LAWLWLLLWL. This series of letters was recorded on the fingerprint form and the forms were filed alphabetically by classification.

Galton's abecedarian filing system was remarkably similar to the one Dr. Faulds had devised and, if Faulds is to be believed, the form Galton designed to record impressions on was a blatant copy of Faulds' form forwarded to Galton from Darwin in 1880.

In 1894, after rejecting Dr. Faulds' suggestion to use fingerprints, Scotland Yard adopted Galton's rudimentary fingerprint system as an auxiliary to their Bertillon files.

Sir Henry At this time, in British India, Edward Henry, the new administrator of the Bengal District, was experiencing the same problems with the local population as Sir Herschel had.

Henry was convinced that a system of identification based solely on fingerprints was possible. A correspondence, and subsequent friendship, began between Henry and Galton; and in 1894, when he returned to England on leave, Henry visited Galton at his laboratory.

After returning to India, Henry had fingerprints and Bertillon measurements taken of all prisoners under his jurisdiction. In a report dated June 24, 1896, Henry outlined the advantages of a fingerprint-based system over Bertillonage, but admitted that such a system had not yet been fully developed.

A major obstacle was the formulation of a simple and logical method of dividing fingerprint records into a large number of primary groupings. The solution, according to Henry, came to him in a flash of inspiration during a train journey across India. Lacking paper and fearing the vision might fade from his mind and become lost forever, he scribbled notes on the cuffs of his shirt sleeves.

A less dramatic but more plausible version of this breakthrough maintains that Sir Henry's Indian assistant, Khan Bahadur Azizul Haque, devised the mathematical formula, then found himself frustrated by Henry's lack of comprehension when he attempted to explain it to him.

Classification Systems Compared Henry's classification system assigned a value to each individual finger. Fingers number 1 and 2, being the right thumb and right index, held a value of 16. Fingers number 3 and 4, the right middle and ring, held a value of 8, and so on.

Whenever a whorl pattern appeared in a finger, the corresponding value was added to the base value of 1. Henry used a fraction-type primary classification which took the accrued values of the even numbered fingers as the numerator and the accrued value of the odd numbered fingers as the denominator.

Therefore, a person with the fingerprint patterns Loop, Loop, Arch, Whorl, Loop in the right hand and Whorl, Loop, Whorl, Loop, Loop in the left hand would have a primary fingerprint classification of 15 over 1. A person with no whorl patterns would have a primary classification of 1 over 1.

This classification system, allowing for 1,024 primary groupings, was instituted in Bengal, India, in early 1897. The success of Henry's experiment encouraged him to make a formal request to the Government of India for the appointment of an independent committee to review his new system and compare it with Bertillonage.

The committee met in March of 1897 and submitted a report to the Government of India which concluded that the fingerprint method was far superior to the Bertillon System. On June 12, 1897, the Governor General signed a resolution directing that identification of criminals by fingerprint impressions be adopted in British India.

Henry's Fingerprint Classification System was so successful in India that a second committee was assembled to review Scotland Yard's identification practices. This committee, in 1900, recommended the total abandonment of Bertillon's anthropometric system in favor of the new Henry System.

In May of 1901, Henry was appointed Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Department. He was transferred to England and began setting up Scotland Yard's Central Fingerprint Bureau and instructing selected officers in the art of fingerprint classification.

By the time Mr. Baker and Dr. Lamb visited London in 1902, Henry's fingerprint file was in full operation. They were impressed by this new system and, prior to returning to America, purchased a copy of Henry's book, Classification and Uses of Fingerprints, as well as Finger Prints by Sir Francis Galton.

Shortly after his return, Mr. Baker was interviewed by Harry Beardsley for an article which appeared in the April 16, 1903 edition of Leslie's Weekly. In the article, Mr. Baker extolled the wonders of the Bertillon Method and made little mention of fingerprints.

Superintendent Collins, in his annual report for 1903, noted the introduction of a Fingerprint Department "for the purpose of experiment and test," but predicted that the Bertillon System would continue to be the approved method of identification in the United States.

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