There was once a time when it was possible to literally get away with murder. This began to change in the 19th century. That’s when fingerprints were analyzed, photography advanced enough to take pictures quickly and science acquired a new discipline, forensics. Let’s examine the history of these three modern crime-solving techniques.
Fingerprints: The Classification of People
People recognized the uniqueness of fingerprints in antiquity, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that they became a tool for law enforcement. In 1858, Sir William Herschel – the chief magistrate of the Hooghly district in Jungipoor, India – required fingerprints in addition to signatures on all business documents and civil contracts in an effort to reduce fraud.
In the 1880s, fingerprints and how to classify them became of interest to Henry Faulds and Sir Francis Galton, both cousins of famed naturalist Charles Darwin. The men examined the patterns in fingerprints, and in 1892, Galton published a book on a fingerprint classification system based on the patterns in the prints.
That same year, fingerprints were used for the first time in a criminal case. Juan Vucetich, a police official in Buenos Aires, used fingerprints to solve a double murder.
Scotland Yard established a Fingerprint Bureau in 1901, and courts in the United States began to accept fingerprints as evidence a decade later. This replaced the flawed Bertillion System which classified criminals based on body measurements.
The first U.S. court case to use fingerprint evidence was the case People v. Jennings. In this case, Thomas Jennings was convicted of killing Clarence Hiller during a botched robbery. Jennings’ lawyers tried to get the conviction overturned, but the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
“This method of identification is in such general and common use that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it,” the court said.
Mugshots: Visual Aids for Police
Photographing alleged criminals is as old as photography itself. Photographic technology at the time, however, was slow and cumbersome, so it wasn’t until the later part of the 19th century that photos became a practical crime-fighting tool.
Alphonse Bertillon – a clerk in the Prefecture of Police of Paris and the inventor of the Bertillion System – began taking the photographs of criminals in the late 1870s. It soon became a standardized practice in France.
Bertillon took each criminal’s photograph in the same manner and under standardized lighting conditions. Two photographs were taken, one from the front and one from the side. The photographs were then attached to an identification card containing other information.
Bertillon’s photographic system was displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. This helped to popularize the technique worldwide.
Mugshots were an extension of the wanted posters widely used in the 19th century and get their name from “mug,” a slang term for face.
Forensics: Determining the Cause of Death
Simplistic forms of forensics date back to antiquity as medical experts tried to discover ways to determine the causes of a mysterious deaths. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that what today we would think of as forensic science developed.
Some advances in the field include:
- 19th century: Scientists study how a body decomposes and how insects colonize a cadaver
- 1832: James Marsh develops the first arsenic test
- 1835: Henry Goddard is the first person to use physical analysis to connect a bullet to the murder weapon
- Mid-19th century: Improvements to the microscope make it possible to examine hairs, microorganisms, lesions and other evidence. Tests are developed to analyze semen, saliva and other bodily fluids
- 1870s and 1880s: Spectroscopy allows for the study of light and gas by using a prism to divide it into constituent colors
- 1900: Karl Landsteiner discovers the human blood types A, B and O
- 1902: Switzerland introduces the world’s first academic curriculum for forensic science
- 1910: The University of Lyons establishes the world’s first police crime laboratory
Forensic pioneers had to fight for their field to be recognized as a legitimate crime-solving technique. Today, forensics is used to solve many crimes that otherwise would be cold cases.
Interested in crime history? Read more in my book Heinous: Forgotten Murders From the 1910s.
Updated: 27 October 2020