1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Identification

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IDENTIFICATION (Lat. idem, the same), the process of proving any one’s identity, i.e. that he is the man he purports to be, or—if he is pretending to be some one else—the man he really is; or in case of dispute, that he is the man he is alleged to be. As more strenuous efforts have been made for the pursuit of criminals, and more and more severe penalties are inflicted on old offenders, means of identification have become essential, and various processes have been tried to secure that desirable end. For a long time they continued to be most imperfect; nothing better was devised than rough and ready methods of recognition depending upon the memories of officers of the law or the personal impressions of witnesses concerned in the case, supplemented in more recent years by photographs, not always a safe and unerring guide. The machinery employed was cumbrous, wasteful of time and costly. Detective policemen were marched in a body to inspect arrested prisoners in the exercising yards of the prison. Accused persons were placed in the midst of a number of others of approximately like figure and appearance, and the prosecutor and witnesses were called in one by one to pick out the offender. Inquiries, with a detailed description of distinctive marks, and photographs were circulated far and wide to local police forces. Officers, police and prison wardens were despatched in person to give evidence of identity at distant courts. Mis-identification was by no means rare. Many remarkable cases may be quoted. One of the most notable was that of the Frenchman Lesurques, in the days of the Directory, who was positively identified as having robbed the Lyons mail and suffered death, protesting his innocence of the crime, which was afterwards brought home to another man, Duboscq, and this terrible judicial error proved to be the result of the extraordinary likeness between the two men. Another curious case is to be found in American records, when a man was indicted for bigamy as James Hoag, who averred that he was really Thomas Parker. There was a marvellous conflict of testimony, even wives and families and personal friends being misled, and there was a narrow escape of mis-identification. The leading modern case in England is that of Adolf Beck (1905). Beck (who eventually died at the end of 1909) was arrested on the complaint of a number of women who positively swore to his identity as Smith, a man who had defrauded them. An ex-policeman who had originally arrested Smith also swore that Beck was the same man. There was a grave miscarriage of justice. Beck was sentenced to penal servitude, and although a closer examination of the personal marks showed that Beck could not possibly be Smith, it was only after a scandalous delay, due to the obstinacy of responsible officials, that relief was afforded. It has to be admitted that evidence as to identity based on personal impressions is perhaps of all classes of evidence the least to be relied upon.

Such elements of uncertainty cannot easily be eliminated from any system of jurisprudence, but some improvements in the methods of identification have been introduced in recent years. The first was in the adoption of anthropometry (q.v.), which was invented by the French savant, A. Bertillon. The reasons that led to its general supersession may be summed up in its costliness, the demand for superior skill in subordinate agents and the liability to errors not easy to trace and correct. A still more potent reason remained, the comparative failure of results. It was found in the first four years of its use in England and Wales that an almost inappreciable number of identifications were effected by the anthropometric system; namely, 152 in 1898, 243 in 1899, 462 in 1900, and 503 in 1901, the year in which it was supplemented by the use of “finger prints” (q.v.). The figures soon increased by leaps and bounds. In 1902 the total number of searches among the records were 6826 and the identifications 1722 for London and the provinces; in 1903 the searches were 11,919, the identifications 3642; for the first half of 1904 the searches were 6697 and the identifications 2335. In India and some of the colonies the results were still more remarkable; the recognitions in 1903 were 9512, and 17,289 in 1904. Were returns available from other countries very similar figures would no doubt be shown. Among these countries are Ireland, Australasia, Ceylon, South Africa, and many great cities of the United States; and the system is extending to Germany, Austria-Hungary and other parts of Europe.

The record of finger prints in England and Wales is kept by the Metropolitan police at New Scotland Yard. They were at first limited to persons convicted at courts at quarter sessions and assizes and to all persons sentenced at minor courts to more than a month without option of fine for serious offences. The finger prints when taken by prison warders are forwarded to London for registration and reference on demand. The total number of finger-print slips was 70,000 in 1904, and weekly additions were being made at the rate of 350 slips. The advantages of the record system need not be emphasized. By its means identification is prompt, inevitable and absolutely accurate. By forwarding the finger prints of all remanded prisoners to New Scotland Yard, their antecedents are established beyond all hesitation.

In past times identification of criminals who had passed through the hands of the law was compassed by branding, imprinting by a hot iron, or tattooing with an indelible sign, such as a crown, fleur de lys or initials upon the shoulder or other part of the body. This practice, long since abandoned, was in a measure continued in the British army, when offenders against military law were ordered by sentence of court-martial to be marked with “D” for deserter and “B.C.” bad character; this ensured their recognition and prevented re-enlistment; but all such penalties have now disappeared.  (A. G.)