Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Rushton, Catherine G.
Pub Date: 08/01/2012
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: August, 2012 Source Volume: 74 Source Issue: 6
Topic: NamedWork: Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Beavan, Colin
Accession Number: 298172409
Full Text: Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science. By Colin Beavan. 2002. Hyperion. (ISBN 0786885289). 256 pp. Paperback. $4.99.

Most forensic textbooks allot one chapter to the history of fingerprints. Beaven offers an in-depth tour through the history of fingerprints--including major and minor cases--making the history of fingerprints read like a mystery novel. He relates the intrigues and egos of key individuals, specifically the conspiracy between Francis Galton and William Herschel to deny credit to Henry Faulds for his contributions to fingerprint science. Even though the intrigues are not necessary from a historical perspective, they certainly breathe life into what some would consider a dry topic.

The book is not intended to be an academic work. Rather, it was written to be a nonfiction work relating the changes in the criminal justice system of Europe--and later America--that led to the need for a way to easily and accurately identify criminals. Following a series of important criminal cases, the United Kingdom adopted fingerprints as a means of identification and, a few years later, so did America.

The U.K. has a bloody history of dealing with criminals, including hanging and other torturous methods. Because a dead criminal cannot commit another crime, recidivism rates were low. But death is final, so judges would mete out merciful sentences, such as a period of imprisonment, for minor criminals. This led to the creation of prisons. Because criminals were being released back into society, rather than being buried, society became aware of the repeat offender. Parliament decreed that repeat offenders should be given harsher punishments, but police did not have a reliable means of identifying criminals. Repeat offenders could change their name to avoid harsher sentences.

For the next 20 years, several men struggled to devise a reliable system for identification. Alfonse Bertillion applied anthropological techniques for describing populations to the description of criminals. Although this later proved to be a flawed technique, it achieved initial success. The use of eyewitness testimony proved the fallibility of someone's ability to distinguish between two people who look similar. Adolf Beck, a wealthy copper-mine owner, was convicted of robbery by eyewitness testimony. After he served five years in jail, it was later determined that someone else, who looked similar, was guilty. Fingerprints can distinguish between two people who look alike--even twins.

Herschel worked as Inspector General in India and used fingerprints as a means of identifying the Indian population to decrease rebellion against the Crown. Fingerprints were used for one year before Herschel returned to the U.K. and the practice was abandoned.

Faulds, a Scottish physician, performed experiments removing the skin from the fingers; he showed how fingerprints grow back in the same pattern as before. This proved the permanence and uniqueness of fingerprints to an individual. He published his findings before anyone else.

Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, conspired with Herschel to promote themselves instead of Faulds--as pioneers of fingerprint science. Beavan described Galton as a self-serving elitist who "treated with ingratitude and callousness both those who helped him win his prestige and those who through hard work had won acclaim of their own" (p. 97).

Galton and others were knighted for their contributions. Fauld's contributions were recognized by the British government posthumously by a secret monetary payment to his daughters.

Although this book was published 10 years ago, the history of fingerprints has not changed significantly since then. Beaven includes an epilogue that relates the current use of DNA analysis as a means of identification. DNA analysis has made tremendous strides since the publication of this book, so care should be exercised when reading this particular chapter.

This book is well written, but its readability, at times, can obscure the sequence of events. Beavan points out numerous interesting connections between people and places, but this can cause some confusion as to what took place when. A timeline is included at the beginning of the book to help readers keep the sequence of events in mind. Beavan has used credible sources to build his work and includes source notes for each chapter in addition to the bibliography.

Beaven wrote this book for anyone interested in the history of fingerprinting and how its acceptance by the police inaugurated the forensic science profession. The material is suitable for secondary students through adult readers. Many popular forensic science books present cases that are gruesome or inappropriate for younger audiences, but this one does not. The materials upon which Beavan builds the book also make it appropriate for forensic scientists and lawyers.

Catherine G. Rushton, MSFS

Marshall University Forensic

Science Program

Huntington, WV 25701
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.