Were The St. Louis Police First To Use Fingerprints?

The online history of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department reveals something you wouldn’t know: The 1904 World’s Fair is cited as a policing challenge because it attracted swindlers and pickpockets along with train robbers. It doesn’t mention that there was also talk of fingerprint identification at the time, in addition to all the excitement about new foods. Our savvy gendarmes were attentive, and the city’s police department was the first to establish a fingerprint bureau in the country in October 1904.

Police used a system called the Bertillon system to measure bones and make custom suits. This method was thrown out of whack when William West, a man who looked exactly like him, was sent to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was serving a sentence for murder. These two men, who were probably identical twins and separated at birth, had the same bone measurements.

However, their fingerprints were very different.

The specialness of each finger was something that human beings have known for a long time. Nearly 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi used finger seals to sign contracts in what is now Iraq. Soon after, the Chinese began inking fingers to sign contracts. A German doctor in the late 1700s noted that fingerprints could never be duplicated, but left it at that. Henry Faulds discovered that bloody fingerprints could be used to solve crimes and sent his observations to Charles Darwin. Sir Francis Galton was then notified.

Galton was a statistician and psychologist as well as an anthropologist and explorer. However, his brilliant intellect cast a shadow. He advocated for forced sterilization of people “afflicted with lunacy,” feeble-mindedness, and habitual criminality. He was able to identify patterns in friction ridges and divide them into different types of loop, arch, and whorl when he concentrated on fingerprints.

Galton corresponded to Sir Edward Henry, a Victorian Englishman who created a system for fingerprint identification that was practical for law enforcement. Henry introduced his system to Scotland Yard in 1901. Three years later, the British crown jewels traveled to St. Louis World’s Fair. John Ferrier, one of the Scotland Yard detectives he’d been training, brought along a different agenda: to convert Americans into the Henry system.

Ours was the first U.S. police department to adopt it on October 28, 1904.