1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Finger-Prints

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FINGER-PRINTS. The use of finger-prints as a system of identification (q.v.) is of very ancient origin, and was known from the earliest days in the East when the impression of his thumb was the monarch’s sign-manual. A relic of this practice is still preserved in the formal confirmation of a legal document by “delivering” it as one’s “act and deed.” The permanent character of the finger-print was first put forward scientifically in 1823 by J. E. Purkinje, an eminent professor of physiology, who read a paper before the university of Breslau, adducing nine standard types of impressions and advocating a system of classification which attracted no great attention. Bewick, the English draughtsman, struck with the delicate qualities of the lineation, made engravings of the impression of two of his finger-tips and used them as signatures for his work. Sir Francis Galton, who laboured to introduce finger-prints, points out that they were proposed for the identification of Chinese immigrants when registering their arrival in the United States. In India, Sir William Herschel desired to use finger-prints in the courts of the Hugli district to prevent false personation and fix the identity upon the executants of documents. The Bengal police under the wise administration of Sir E. R. Henry, afterwards chief commissioner of the London metropolitan police, usefully adopted finger-prints for the detection of crime, an example followed in many public departments in India. A transfer of property is attested by the thumb-mark, so are documents when registered, and advances made to opium-growers or to labourers on account of wages, or to contracts signed under the emigration law, or medical certificates to vouch for the persons examined, all tending to check the frauds and impostures constantly attempted.

The prints depend upon a peculiarity seen in the human hand and to some extent in the human foot. The skin is traversed in all directions by creases and ridges, which are ineradicable and show no change from childhood to extreme old age. The persistence of the markings of the finger-tips has been proved beyond all question, and this universally accepted quality has been the basis of the present system of identification. The impressions, when examined, show that the ridges appear in certain fixed patterns, from which an alphabet of signs or a system of notation has been arrived at for convenience of record. As the result of much experiment a fourfold scheme of classification has been evolved, and the various types employed are styled “arches,” “loops,” “whorls” and “composites.” There are seven subclasses, and all are perfectly distinguishable by an expert, who can describe each by its particular symbol in the code arranged, so that the whole “print” can be read as a distinct and separate expression. Very few, and the simplest, appliances are required for taking the print—a sheet of white paper, a tin slab, and some printer’s ink. Scars or malformations do not interfere with the result.

The unchanging character of the finger-prints has repeatedly helped in the detection of crime. We may quote the case of the thief who broke into a residence and among other things helped himself to a glass of wine, leaving two finger-prints upon the tumbler which were subsequently found to be identical with those of a notorious criminal who was arrested, pleaded guilty and was convicted. Another burglar effected entrance by removing a pane of glass from a basement window, but, unhappily for him, left his imprints, which were referred to the registry and found to agree exactly with those of a convict at large; his address was known, and when visited some of the stolen property was found in his possession. In India a murderer was identified by the brown mark of a blood-stained thumb he had left when rummaging amongst the papers of the deceased. This man was convicted of theft but not of the murder.

The keystone to the whole system is the central office where the register or index of all criminals is kept for ready reference. The operators need no special gifts or lengthy training; method and accuracy suffice, and abundant checks exist to obviate incorrect classification and reduce the liability to error.

Authorities.—F. Galton, Finger Prints (1892), Fingerprint Directories (1895); E. R. Henry, Classification and Uses of Finger Prints; A. Yvert, L’Identification par les empreintes digitales palmaires (1905); K. Windt, R. S. Kodicek, Daktyloskopie. Verwertung von Fingerabdrücken zu Identifizierungszwecken (Vienna, 1904); E. Loeard, La Dactyloscopie. Identification des récidivistes par les empreintes digitales (1904); H. Faulds, Guide to Finger-Print Identification (1905); H. Gross, Criminal Investigation (trans. J. and J. C. Adam, 1907).  (A. G.)