Object lesson

Harvey McGavin

If you want to feel special, to be reminded of your uniqueness, just open the palm of your hand and take a look at the tips of your fingers. You are the only person in the world with that particular pattern of fine lines. Now, doesn't that make you feel better?

But not everybody is so pleased to see their fingerprints. In 1892, after she had murdered her two sons, cut her own neck and blamed it all on a neighbour, Francesca Rojas of Buenos Aires, Argentina, left hers on a bloodstained doorframe and so became the first person to be convicted by fingerprint evidence. The system used to convict her, developed by policeman Juan Vucetich, is still widely used in South America.

The same year, Sir Francis Galton, an anthropologist and cousin of Charles Darwin, published his book Fingerprints. In it he proposed the first system for fingerprint identification, based on arches, loops and whorls in the papillary ridges. "Let no one despise the ridges on account of their smallness," he wrote. "They have the unique merits of retaining their peculiarities unchanged throughout life." The chances of two fingerprints being the same were, he reckoned, 64 billion to one.

His system, still used today and referred to as Galton's details, was based on earlier research by Henry Faulds, a doctor and evangelist who had suggested the forensic use of the "skinfurrows of the hand" in 1880. Galton identified three main types of fingerprints. Two-thirds of us have concentric, hairpin-like "loops", three out of 10 people have rounded "whorls", while "arches", which look like a mound or steeple, are found on only 5 per cent of fingertips.

One hundred years ago this month, the first fingerprint bureau in Britain was set up at Scotland Yard and now contains 1.5 million sets of prints. Dabs, as they became known in police slang, were soon appearing in court, convicting a burglar the next year. The first British murder conviction followed in 1905, when Alfred and Albert Stratton were found guilty of the killing of an elderly couple at their shop in south London in a notorious case known as the Mask Murders.

Today, DNA fingerprinting may have overtaken the digital kind, but fingerprints are still sought-after clues at the scene of a crime, and remain a handy reminder of our singular identity.

Harvey McGavin

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Harvey McGavin

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