Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.
The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)
The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.
All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.
And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.
This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly ever other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.
Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.
LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.
And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.
Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.
However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.
To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.
Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)
LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that
[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.
* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.
** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.
But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.
Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).
This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.
Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.
It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.
The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.
January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.
Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.
And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?
The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.
The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.
Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)
Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.
Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.
Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)
Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*
While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.
As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.
From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.
Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.
New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.
A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.
Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.
* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.
On this date in 1936, Buktyar Rustomji Ratanji Hakim, also known as Buck Ruxton, was hanged in Strangeways Prison for the murder of his common-law wife, Isabella, and their maid, Mary Jane Rogerson.
A general practitioner of Persian descent, Ruxton was born in India and moved to the United Kingdom in 1930 to set up practice in Lancaster.
He met a married Englishwoman, Isabella Van Ess, and took up with her after her divorce. Although they never legally married and Ruxton actually already had a wife he’d left behind in India, they lived as man and wife and had three children, and she took his last name.
Ruxton had a reputation as a good doctor and a compassionate one who waived his fees for indigent. He wasn’t nearly as good a husband as he was a physician, however: he was extremely jealous of his charming, sociable wife and continually accused her of infidelity with little actual evidence of it.
The neighbors overheard violent arguments, and Isabella would occasionally take the children and leave, seeking refuge at her sister’s home. At one point she reported her husband to the police for domestic violence, but they paid little attention to her complaints.
On September 15, 1935, Ruxton flew into one of his rages, stabbed his wife five times in the chest, beat her and strangled her with his bare hands. He battered the maid to death as well, since she had been unlucky enough to witness it. A clever little rhyme memorialized the story, one of its various versions is printed below:
Red stains on the carpet, red stains on the knife
For Dr. Buck Ruxton had murdered his wife
The maid servant saw it and threatened to tell
So Dr. Buck Ruxton, he’s killed her as well
Ruxton dismembered both bodies in the bathtub and dumped the parts in a stream near the Scottish border, over a hundred miles from Lancaster. There were thirty pieces in all, leading the press to call the case the “Jigsaw Murders.”
In an effort to hinder identification, Ruxton removed the victims’ teeth and skinned their faces. This turned out to be too clever by half: once the bodies were found in late September, the precision of the cuts told authorities that the killer was someone with anatomical knowledge and surgical skill, which narrowed the suspect pool considerably.
This filter, combined with the realization that one of the newspapers Ruxton used to wrap up some dismembered bit was a special edition copy sold only in Lancaster and Morecambe, led the cops to Ruxton and not many others. It wasn’t long before the pieces — sorry — fell into place.
Meanwhile, exciting new forensic techniques, helped firm up identification of the corpses: authorities superimposed a photograph of Isabella over one of the skulls and found a dramatically jury-friendly visible match.
Isabella Ruxton, in life and death.
Forensic entomology (in this case, the gross but useful technique of checking the age of the maggots infesting the corpses) helped pinpoint the date of death.
Ruxton was arrested on October 13, nearly a month after the double murder.
The Ruxtons’ charlady told the police that on the day Isabella and the maid disappeared, Ruxton came to her house early and told her not to come in to work. The next day, when she arrived at the Ruxtons’ house, she found it in a state of disarray with the carpets removed and a pile of burnt material in the backyard. A neighbor couple also had helpful recollections: Ruxton had persuaded them to come and help out at his house, saying he’d cut his hand while opening a can of peaches and he needed to clean up quickly because decorators were coming over. They scrubbed his walls and he gave them some bloodstained carpets and clothing.
Given all this evidence, there was little Ruxton’s defense attorney could say for him.
The defense tried to challenge the identification of the bodies, but the superimposed skull picture was quite convincing. Ruxton admitted his guilt prior to his execution and signed a short confession. He was hanged in spite of a petition with 10,000 signatures asking for mercy.
John’s counsel went with the insanity defense — you know, the classic; he’d been raving incoherently in prison and seemed not in his right mind. A doctor ruled that John “laboured under a state of idiotism … incapable of knowing the right hand from the left.”
So, despite the jailer’s suspicion that Lyal was simulating (he testified that John Lyal knew a hawk from a handsaw when he was first captured and didn’t start with the crazy talk for a few days), John Lyal was ruled unfit for trial.
That left Adam Boyd alone to answer for both. Maybe he should have requested a psychological evaluation too, because he was crazy to go on trial.
In that proceeding, he faced the detailed testimony of Matthew Boyd that on Oct. 25 previous, he was returning from the fair when the pair approached him.
On coming up, one of them laid his arm over the bridle, and having both pistols in their hands, they presented them, and desired him to deliver up his pocketbook, or they would blow his brains out.
Boyd boldly tried to bluff his way out of this at the risk of his life, but the robbers thrashed him until he coughed up a parcel of small notes … and then, most begrudgingly, another £100 of large notes he had stashed in his vest.
He’d relinquished his cash, for now, but this Matthew Boyd was an intrepid soul.
As he had been robbed in broad daylight, Boyd had plenty of time to get to Stirling, procure a warrant, and track Boyd’s assailants all the way to Edinburgh where the next day he finally found them in the streets and personally collared them.
Conclusion: do not rob Matthew Boyd.
Adam Lyal’s defense, considerably less effective than that of his brother, was to argue that the indictment charged a robbery in the shire of Perth, but it was actually done in the county of Stirling.
On this date in 1912, investigative reporter Emile Gauvreau saw George Redding hanged at the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield.
“When I left the prison to write my story,” Gauvreau later wrote in his memoir My Last Million Readers,* “I found out why newspapermen drank and I had my first half tumbler of cognac.”
Gauvreau was 21 years old, and he wasn’t a pup any longer.
This hard-charging journo from a rough-and-tumbler age would later make a name for himself pioneering the lowbrow Big Apple tabloid style with his New York Graphic. (“The PornoGraphic”, it was nicknamed.)
And he made his bones for that classic career in newsprint — from high school dropout to cub reporter to the heights of the profession — by making bones of George Redding.
The case was the mysterious February 1912 murder of a Hamden produce peddler by the name of Morris Greenberg. Greenberg was lured to a wooded area en route to buy from a local farmer and shot dead there for his cash. Police were stumped.
Gauvreau at the time was busting hard at the police desk of the New Haven Journal-Courier (since merged into the New Haven Register). He took a page from Sherlock Holmes and went to work on the sensational case freelance … painstakingly eliminating Hamden residents until he was left with George Redding.
Redding was a young man on the make himself, a charming 21-year-old playwright who’d been throwing a lot of money around lately and was known to carry a sidearm.
Circling his friends and paramours, Gauvreau sealed the young man’s fate by laying hands on a damning confessional that Redding had sent a friend. Gauvreau even stage-managed the arrest so that he could shock rival papers and police detectives by breaking the whole story in his paper. All that was left for police was extracting Redding’s confession.
Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.
Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.
Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.
The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.
The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though notquite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.
In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.
Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.
Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.
This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.
But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.
* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.
Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.
Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.
It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.
This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)
An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”
Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.
Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.
Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.
Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.
Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.
Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements
in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.
Downing was exultant.
“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.
Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.
Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news
that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains.
See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)
* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”
“Mr Joseph Hani was hanged for treason in the Burj at 5 a.m. At 8 a.m. 40 families deported.
-Diary of Mrs. Harry Dorman, April 5, 1916*
The unfortunate Joseph Hani — Yusuf al-Hani — was among the worthies of Beirut’s Maronite Christian community to petition the French consulate for western aid in detaching Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire.
With the development of World War I, the French ambassador Francois Georges-Picot abandoned the embassy … without removing or destroying this sort of incriminating correspondence. As a result, the Turks ransacked the embassy and identified several dozen of reproachable loyalty to the Porte to put to death.
May 6 — Martyrs’ Day — honors these victims, but Hani was among the very first of them.
While most of the other Maronite signers were able to fly, Hani stuck around to face the music. A British agent was able to contact the implicated characters in Aley Prison, and received the plaintive answer,
‘Where are the English? Where are the French? Why are we left like this?’
* I believe an ancestor of the current president of the American University of Beirut, Peter Dorman. The source of the diary citation is Nicholas Z. Ajay Jr.’s “Political Intrigue and Suppression in Lebanon during World War I” in International Journal of Middle East Studies, Apr., 1974.
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.
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).