Chandak Sengoopta
Imprint of the Raj

The doctor mumbled that there was nothing irregular about his actions, since he was an independent witness, and the judge quipped: 'An absolutely untrustworthy one, I should think.' Garson averred that his evidence would not have differed whatever side he was on and the defence counsel battled on valiantly, denouncing fingerprint evidence as a dubious French import incompatible with British justice. The judge delivered a fair summing-up, pointing out that the cash-box print was made by perspiration—a 'latent' in modern jargon—and not an inked print like the one it was being compared to. The jury should not rely only on the evidence of the print, although the resemblances between the two were marked and should be counted as corroborative evidence against Alfred Stratton. After two hours of deliberation, the jury pronounced against the brothers, both of whom were sentenced to death.

Garson was not the only expert on the defence team. Although he did not appear on the witness stand, Henry Faulds had advised the defence and was present at the trial. Later, he argued in his Guide to Finger-Print identification that the mark found on the cash box was so indistinct that it differed from the thumbprint of Alfred Stratton on at least as many points as it resembled it. If, as Scotland Yard seemed to think, four points of congruence were enough to pronounce a pair of prints as identical, then would the presence of 'four successive disagreements of pattern' permit a declaration of non-identity? 'A smudge of this quality,' he concluded, 'should not be presented in court as evidence. The results are necessarily ambiguous or equivocal. It would be quite easy to find thousands of innocent men in whose finger patterns a few apparent coincidences could be read into such a hazy smudge.'

It was, in fact, the confession of one of the brothers in prison that finally reassured people that the technique was valid. Nevertheless, the guilty verdict robbed the already marginal Faulds of any significant audience. The trial of Harry Jackson had brought out all the strengths of the fingerprint system but it had not, of course, been sensational enough to grab public attention. The trial of the Deptford murderers, however, was tailor-made for publicity and fingerprints were now part of the national vocabulary. Without even mentioning the trial, which had taken place less than three months previously, the Daily Express began a 'finger-print competition' that ran weekly from July to September 1905. It was a murder mystery serial, specially written for the paper, each instalment of which was illustrated with the fingerprints of the characters.

The reader who successfully identified the murderer—who had obligingly left a print on the scene of crime, reproduced in the first instalment of the story—would win £100. (In order to guide its readers on the new technique, the newspaper commissioned a long article explaining the nature of fingerprint evidence in untechnical language from an expert 'who was most eminent among British authorities' and had 'long been identified with the science of identification by finger-prints.' This authority on fingerprinting was the recently humiliated Dr John Garson.) The final legal battle for the validity of fingerprint identification was won with the 1909 Castleton case, when the Criminal Appeal Court ruled that the court or a jury might accept 'the evidence of finger-prints though it be the sole ground of identification.' Fingerprinting was now home and dry.

The most piquant irony of this story is that from the north Bengal case onward, the history of fingerprinting followed a path first marked out—and partly explored—by Henry Faulds, the one man who had been completely excluded from the official history. It was Herschel, Galton and Henry who now formed what the historian George Wilton would later mockingly describe as the Fingerprint Triumvirate. At one level, this was simply because the history of fingerprinting was first authoritatively recounted by Francis Galton and no subsequent historical outline moved far beyond that account, except for George Wilton's revisionist account of 1938, which argued passionately that it was Faulds who should be honoured as the founder of fingerprint identification. Until the end of his long life—he was to die at the age of 101—the pugnacious Wilton kept up his battle with Scotland Yard and the government to win posthumous recognition for Faulds and a pension for his daughters but none of his efforts was to bear much fruit.

Why was Faulds marginalized? For Galton, it was not only Herschel's august lineage but also the unrivalled collection of evidence that were crucial. Faulds may have foreseen the future of fingerprinting far more clearly than Herschel or even Galton, but at no point in the early history of the technique did he publish sufficient evidence to demonstrate the persistence of fingerprint patterns through life—his experimental shaving-off of the ridges, only to watch them grow again was rightly dismissed by Galton, Herschel and others as insufficient in comparison with Herschel's collection of prints of the same individuals over decades. Secondly, Faulds could not produce a satisfactory classification scheme—although he claimed to have one—before the turn of the century, and by then the Henry system was already of and running.

Most of the factors that militated against Faulds were ultimately related to the Empire. Herschel's introduction of fingerprinting into the Registration Department and the jail at Hooghly was to provide Galton with some of his most valuable evidence. Faulds, a lone individual in Tokyo and then in England, simply never had that kind of administrative opportunity to try out the procedure; nor does he seem to have collected and preserved fingerprint specimens as extensively and meticulously as Herschel. A usable classification, of course, could have been evolved anywhere, at least in theory, but it so happened that it, too, was evolved at the heart of the Empire and had to be imported with its originator.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.