Of Course, It Got Racist: The History of Fingerprinting

Of Course, It Got Racist: The History of Fingerprinting

If you’ve ever so much as accidentally said the letters “CSI” while trying to recite the alphabet drunk, you know that the best way to catch a bad guy is to get out the little brushes and dust you some fingerprints, but how did we figure that out? Who was staring at their fingertips that much? They probably needed a job.

Bronze Age Fingerprinting

Bronze Age artifacts

(National Museum of Korea/Wikimedia Commons)

Evidence suggests that people as far back as about 2,000 B.C.E. used fingerprints as signatures, although weirdly enough, we don’t think they knew that fingerprints were unique. Maybe they just thought they were pretty.

Rediscovering Fingerprints

Fingerprint on glass

(Immo Wegmann/Unsplash)

It wasn’t until 1686 that people, specifically Italian anatomy professor Marcello Malpighi, started thinking those swirly deals on the ends of our fingers might be something cool and studying them. It took another hundred years before German anatomist and excessive name-haver Johann Christoph Andreas Mayer realized everybody had different ones.

Of Course, It Got Racist


(Rui Silvestre/Unsplash)

Once people started understanding fingerprints, they pretty much immediately used them for racism, starting with Sir William James Herschel, a British magistrate in India, who used them to intimidate local business owners by requiring fingerprints on legal contracts in the mid-1800s. By 1892, Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton was poring over fingerprint samples, determined to find racial differences and feeling real put out when he couldn’t.

Francesca Rojas

Francesca Rojas's fingerprint

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

1892 was also the year that an Argentinian woman named Francesca Rojas accused a neighbor of killing her two children. Police couldn’t get the neighbor to confess even after weeks of torture, which included tying him to the victims’ corpses overnight, so they decided to try out this newfangled fingerprinting business. At the scene of the crime, they found a bloody thumbprint … that matched Francesca Rojas. She copped to the murders immediately.

Alfred and Albert Stratton

Fingerprints were used to solve a few more murders over the next 10-ish years, but nobody really heard about it until it happened in Britain, who owned most of the world at the time. On March 27, 1905, the robbery and murder of Thomas and Ann Farrow became the “first time that the cutting-edge technology was used in a high-profile murder case” after witnesses couldn’t be totally sure it was the Stratton brothers they saw.

Thomas Jennings

The U.S. justice system imported fingerprinting in 1910, when Thomas Jennings became the first American criminal to be convicted using fingerprint evidence. His lawyer tried to prove in court that fingerprinting wasn’t reliable by daring experts to lift his print from a sheet of paper right there in front of everybody, which was pretty awkward when they pulled it off no problem.

Fingerprinting Prisoners to Prevent Wacky Mixups


(José León/Unsplash)

Before 1904, American prisoners were identified by photos and face and body measurements, but the flaws in that system became apparent when a man named Will West arrived at Leavenworth for the first time to find out that it wasn’t, according to officials, the first time. It turned out another man named Will West who they claimed was identical to Other Will West was already serving time at the prison, and their records got all tangled up. It’s believed that this might be why Leavenworth began fingerprinting inmates that year, although the timing could be coincidental and the Will Wests weren’t actually identical, people were just racist.

The Massive FBI Database

FBI badge of Dana Scully

(Marija Zaric/Unsplash)

Before World War II, the FBI had about 800,000 individual fingerprints in its database, but wartime paranoia led to the hoarding of 100 million fingerprint cards by its end. By 1971, they’d doubled that number. Basically, they probably have your fingerprints.

Severed Fingerprints

In the ‘40s, the FBI recommended fingerprinting unidentified bodies, but police weren’t always trained for the task, so instead they cut off the fingers and hands and sent them to Washington for processing. The FBI wrote detailed instructions for the procedure, including a warning to properly label the specimen “to avoid the embarrassing situation of identifying the hands and not knowing from which body they were cut."

Fingerprint Removal: An Inexact Science

Alvin Karpis's non-fingerprints

(FBI/Wikimedia Commons)

Plenty of criminals and general shady types have tried to remove their fingerprints, most notably gangster Alvin Karpis, who went to a mob doctor and then probably killed him, and John Dillinger, who paid nearly $100,000 in today’s money for the procedure while on the run in Chicago. Dillinger wasted his money, but it arguably went too well for Karpis. After he was sent back to Canada following his prison term, he couldn’t get a passport without fingerprints.

It’s Possible to Be Born With No Fingerprints

Unfortunately for them, none of those guys were born into one of the four families known to pass down a gene that leaves members without fingerprints. Let’s hope none of them start doing crime. Your fingerprints can also wither along with the rest of you as you age and disappear after taking certain medications, but don’t go off and get cancer just to get a personal Purge.

Fingerprint Hacking


(Wahyu Setiawan/Unsplash)

Don’t let your phone’s fingerprint lock lull you into a false sense of security, at least if your phone is really old. In 2013, a group of German nerds proved they could hack an iPhone 5S by photographing a fingerprint on a glass surface.

An Oldie But a … Finie?

Considering the superheroic leaps of technological advancement in other forensic techniques over the last century or so, it’s maybe a little concerning that fingerprinting hasn’t evolved much. Experts today still use basically the same techniques to collect and identify fingerprints as they did when the science was brand new.

Innocent People Have Been Convicted With Fingerprinting

Sad man

(Karsten Winegeart/Unsplash)

That might be why untold numbers of people -- at least five between 1995 and 2005 -- have been wrongfully identified, and often convicted, on the basis of fingerprint evidence. It’s actually nearly impossible to prove that every fingerprint is unique, and matching techniques aren’t perfect. Still, courts and juries tend to regard them as airtight evidence, so maybe dig some extra whorls in there, just in case.

Top image: Ali Hajian/Unsplash

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