1912: Thomas Jennings, fingerprinted

4 comments 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..

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1920: Dennis Gunn, hanged by a fingerprint

6 comments June 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Dennis Gunn’s fingerprints made history by hanging their owner for murder.

“You’ll have a job to prove it,” said Dennis Gunn when police charged him with murder.

Use of the fingerprint in forensic science had been developing over the decades preceding, and already begun to earn its bones with criminal convictions.

Dennis Gunn’s conviction marked a watershed in the mainstreaming of the youthful science, especially in New Zealand and the British Empire/Commonwealth: the first execution that hung — so to speak — on a print.

The 25-year-old was tied to the murder of Ponsonby postmaster Augustus Braithwaite because a smudge left on a stolen cashbox matched the prints Gunn had contributed to the nascent New Zealand fingerprint library when he had been convicted of evading military service two years before.

Armed with this connection, a police search of Gunn’s environs turned up the apparent tools of the crime — a revolver (with yet another matching print), a thieves’ kit, and more pilfered proceeds of the postal strongroom.

Gunn attempted to indict the reliability of the fingerprint evidence at trial, and according to the London Times (Apr. 20, 1920) he had the support in this endeavor of “public demonstrations of sympathy, men and women rushing to shake hands with Gunn.”

But it didn’t fly with the jury.*

Gunn’s condemnation, read the official report,

disposes of all attempts to question the conclusiveness of this class of evidence, and proves the truth of the remark of the Chief Justice of Australia, that a man who leaves a clear fingerprint on an object leaves there an unforgettable signature.

Law enforcement organs around the world rapidly accepted the principle.

Too rapidly? Some think so; and, in the train of a new century’s bulletproof identification technology, DNA, wrongful convictions founded on purported fingerprint matches have drawn some renewed scrutiny (pdf) to the technique that put Dennis Gunn on the Mount Eden Prison gallows this date in 1920.

* Playing for time after conviction, Gunn copped to the robbery and tried to pin the murder on a supposed confederate. No dice.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf

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1910: Hawley Harvey Crippen

7 comments November 23rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1910, the notorious wife-murdering doctor Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged at London’s Pentonville Prison.

The sensational trial, which saw the American-born homeopath convicted for dismembering his shrewish and unfaithful wife Cora in an attempt to take up with his young mistress, fitted Crippen for both a noose and a likeness at Madame Tussaud’s. (More trial background here.) It has also made his case twice a landmark in the history of crime and technology: once at the time of his arrest, and again just last month as of this writing.

The core of a case a jury found so open-and-shut as to require just 27 minutes to convict was the poorly explained disappearance of Crippen’s wife, followed by the discovery of a considerably mutilated female corpse under the Crippens’ home.

Although much of the crown’s evidence was speculative and circumstantial — to say nothing of the bodice-ripping gossip of nymphomania and infidelity — a corpse under the floorboards tends to be a compelling circumstance to a jury.

Presumably that anticipation prompted Crippen to flee the Scotland Yard investigation with his mistress Ethel le Neve under assumed names on an ocean liner bound for Canada. The case made criminological history as the first use of wireless communication to apprehend a suspect when the ship’s alert captain telegraphed Crippen’s presence to land as the ship steamed away — enabling a policeman to board a faster boat and arrest the pair as they docked in Quebec.

In the century since Crippen went to the gallows still maintaining his innocence, the case has endured in popular notoriety. The killer’s life has been novelized, meditated upon and borrowed for fiction, offering a draught of inspiration to Alfred Hitchcock along the way.

Books inspired by the Crippen case …

Given his suspicious behavior, scant had been the credence given Crippen’s protestation of innocence.

Until now.

In a meeting of Edwardian crime and cutting-edge technology, two scientists from Crippen’s home state of Michigan stunningly announced in October that DNA testing proves the body was not Cora Crippen after all.

If true, it would appear to void Crippen’s conviction in its particulars without quite exonerating the hanged man from the natural question: whose was the corpse? The manufacture of clothes on the body dated it to the Crippens’ occupancy of the house.

One of Crippen’s modern sleuths, in a wholly speculative vein, thinks it might harken to an altogether different sort of crime: a botched back-alley abortion, just the sort of thing a financially struggling physician might have been involved in.

Maybe.

But if the test invites a modern investigator to look 97 years backwards, it also suggests a posture of epistemological humility. It’s just possible that the light this test casts on our own time is as searching as that it shines on 1910.

The Prejudice of Science

The Crippen case was a classic 19th century-style detective job — the inspector who made the arrest cut his teeth as a younger man on a Jack the Ripper murder — but it took place on the brink of a revolution in forensic science.

Just a few years before, fingerprinting had been embraced by British and American law enforcement and begun its march towards total institutionalization. On the heels of fingerprinting came a multiplicity of biometric approaches to crime scenes — hair and fiber analysis, blood typology, and most recently and dramatically, DNA.

And they, in turn, have brought a rising faith in science to adjudicate the law.

While the “CSI Effect” — jurors’ expectation of case-breaking scientific evidence — conventionally plays as a hindrance for prosecutors who usually have no such thing, the excess deference given to less-than-conclusive forensic evidence can likewise cut against the defense. Evidence mishandled at crime labs, even cooked outright, factors into numerous recent post-conviction exonerations. The once ironclad credibility of fingerprint evidence has itself been undermined by subsequent forensic advances.

In short, for all its undoubted contributions to criminal justice, forensic science packs along its own set of pitfalls, caveats and blinders reflexively privileging evidence of the laboratory.

This is not a reflex to indulge uncritically. History grants the benefit of hindsight, but rarely the luxury of certitude.

A waxwork Dr. Crippen at Madame Tussaud’s. Image used with permission.

So if the prospect of Crippen’s innocence intrigues, that unexplained body — that sudden flight for Canada — that (permanent) failure of Cora Crippen to resurface — nevertheless remain. They might lead us to question our implicit faith in the finality of DNA’s verdict on history rather than the other way around.

Are we certain that an unbroken line of blood relations really connects Cora Crippen to the modern DNA donors of her “family”?

Are we certain that a reliable chain of custody has preserved the original tissue samples unsullied across a century?

And if we are certain, what do we make of that body after all?

It is humans who must ultimately interpret and contextualize even the firmest forensic science. Whatever we might believe of Dr. Crippen we retain the burden of that belief, with all its intrinsic potential for grievous wrong.

The tales Hawley Crippen has yet to unfold from the grave might or might not shed still another different light on our understanding of what happened at 39 Hilldrop Crescent a century ago.

The gentleman’s place as a continuing attraction at Madame Tussaud’s, however, seems assured.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Common Criminals,Doctors,England,Hanged,Infamous,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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