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1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted

February 16th, 2012 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Thomas Jennings was ushered the scaffold … while Thomas Jennings’s fingerprints ushered in a new age of policework (pdf).

Hegemonic authority had been on a long march towards a forensic regime that could affix an oft-ephemeral identity to the profoundly corporeal body.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, investigative techniques and jurisprudence marched double time to keep pace with new techniques — from photography to the unwieldy system of Bertillonage.

A variety of American institutions — the U.S. Army, a number of prison systems — had begun systematically cataloging their respective inmates’ fingerprints in the preceding years, but it was in the Jennings case that the system really earned its whorls. It was the first U.S. murder case pinned on fingerprint evidence.

In September 1910, a Chicago homeowner in the present-day Beverly neighborhood surprised an intruder, and was shot dead. (pdf) In the course of the fight or the flight, the prowler splooshed his left hand into some wet paint on a railing.

Thomas Jennings, a paroled burglar, was arrested near the scene, and his fingerprints shown to match those left in the grieving Hiller household. A prosecution expert even gave a courtroom demonstration of dusting for prints.

This was as novel to judges as to jurymen, and given the dearth of other positive evidence against Jennings, the Illinois Supreme Court was called upon to deliberate upon the humble dactylogram. In the summer of 20111911, it stopped Jennings’ hanging just hours before it was to take place.

But its final word in December 20111911 only fitted the homebreaker’s noose.

We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on this subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it …

Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible, with other proof, as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to the identity of persons based on voice, the appearance or age are admissible, Why does not this record justify the admission of this fingerprint testimony under common law rules of evidence.

Courtrooms all around the world soon agreed, and within a generation the awesome investigative power of the fingerprint had fugitives going so far as to slice or burn off those incriminating little pads of flesh — the crime scene gold standard until the advent of DNA testing.

Jennings was hanged this date in a state-record five-man batch (the others, Ewald and Frank Shiblawski, Philip Sommerling, and Thomas Schultz, had all committed an unrelated murder together).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Mass Executions,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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4 thoughts on “1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted”

  1. Clint Mark says:

    i need the summary of this case that emphasizing the important details of the facts of the case.. please :(

  2. Pat Ballew says:

    Galton also published a great number of scholarly papers, popular articles, letters and interviews on the subject of fingerprints beginning in the 1890’s, and Sir William Herschel used fingerprints as identification on native contracts as early as 1858 in Jungipoor, India.
    http://pballew.blogspot.com/2013/07/on-this-day-in-math-july-28.html

  3. chris y says:

    Surprised this was so late. Conan Doyle published The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, in which Lestrade thinks he has his man bang to rights from a fingerprint, in 1903. Holmes doesn’t deny the validity of fingerprint evidence, but shows that the print in question was put there by the real murderer as part of a frame.

  4. Mike D. says:

    In the discussion of Jennings’ appeal (below the video clip), the two dates listed as 2011 should, of course, be 1911.

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