Fingerprinting has been around since the age of the Egyptians. However, modern criminal forensics in the United States have only been using this unique human feature to identify criminals for a little over 100 years. And it all goes back to an odd mix-up at the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth more than a century ago.
In 1903, a new inmate named Will West arrived at the prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. The prison’s records clerk thought this man looked oddly familiar. Even though West had never been jailed there before, prison officials were convinced that they had seen him previously.
After further questioning, the records clerk decided to dig up some older files and sure enough, found a file from 1901 on “William West."
“The one problem was that the William West from the 1901 file was still in prison,” says Steven Spence, an archive specialist at the National Archives in Kansas City.
Turns out, that Will and William West were two separate people who happened to look strikingly similar to one another. The only way that prison officials could differentiate between the two was by using their fingerprints.
Initially, prison officials were trying to ID both men using a now-obsolete system called the Bertillon System, which is based on the lengths and sizes of a series of body parts. At the time, this was the standard system for documenting and identifying criminals. However, the Bertillon System measurements for Will and William West were exactly alike.
“It was a pretty reliable system but, there were people who had very similar Bertillon measurements then, all of a sudden, you get these two guys that look pretty darn close to each other and if just starts clicking that maybe there's a better system we can evolve into or a better way to identify these guys,” says Kenneth LaMaster, author, historian and retired prison guard from Leavenworth penitentiary.
Soon after this case of mistaken identity occurred, fingerprinting quickly became the standard in every aspect of the justice system, according to LaMaster and Spence.
In recent years, DNA testing and biometrics, such as retinal scans, have also become standard tools for identifying people. But fingerprinting remains a practical tool for law enforcement, as well as for everyday use.
“You kind of take it for granted today for what you have and never ever think about — hey, you know, I can take my thumb and stick it on my cell phone and it knows who I am," LaMaster said. "Where did that all get started?"
Patrick Quick is a contributor to KCUR's Central Standard.