Remember to Test for Fingerprints:
The Golden Age and Forensic Developments
by Carol Westron
inexcusably careless misidentification by the authorities and mistaken identification by eye-witnesses. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of Beck's champions, convinced that he had been wrongly convicted, and the newspapers took up Beck's cause. Eventually this resulted in Beck being cleared and awarded compensation, although the experience wrecked his health and life. As a direct result of the Beck case there were amendments to the law of appeal and the creating of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
victims in this case were Thomas Farrow and his wife Ann, who were robbed and beaten to death in the shop they managed in Deptford, London. The police discovered two black stocking masks abandoned at the scene of the crime. A greasy fingerprint was noticed on the cash box and elimination samples taken from the victims and the police officers present. The print was not in the police files but eye-witnesses reported seeing two men in the vicinity of the Farrow's shop and one person identified one of these men as Alfred Stratton. Alfred Stratton and his brother, Albert, were arrested but the evidence against them was insufficient, especially with the public and media suspicion of eye-witness evidence. However, Alfred's fingerprint matched that found on the Farrows' cash box. Although there was other evidence against the Strattons, the verdict was dependant on the jury accepting the fingerprint evidence. In this trial, the fate of fingerprint evidence hung in the balance as well as the fate of the two accused men. Detective Inspector Charles Collins appeared as the fingerprint expert for the police and, at the request of a juror, had to demonstrate the fingerprint taking process and the alteration caused by applying different amounts of pressure. The Defence had two expert witnesses who were employed to contradict the police fingerprint evidence but the first expert witness was discredited when it was demonstrated he'd been willing to support the side that offered him the highest fee and the Defence barrister decided not to risk calling his second expert. Newspaper coverage of this landmark case varied in tone, with headlines ranging from The Daily Mirror's MASKED MURDERERS CONDEMNED to the more moderate broadsheets referring to THE DEPTFORD MURDERS but they all reported in detail the wonderful new science of fingerprint evidence.
Close on the heels of Sherlock Holmes came Dr John Thorndyke, created by R. Austin Freeman. Thorndyke is a master of both medical and legal knowledge and an expert at detecting forged signatures. For those fascinated by forensics his books contain detailed descriptions of the processes involved in taking and analysing fingerprints and making moulds of shoe prints and photographing crime scenes and many other scientific procedures. In Unnatural Death (1927) by Dorothy L Sayers, Detective Inspector Parker describes the footprints in a faked attack: '“It was all worked out to a nicety – each set over and under the others, to produce the impression that three people had been there at the same time. Intensive study of the works of Mr Austin Freeman, I should say.”' In the same book, Sayers has fingerprint evidence providing a decisive clue that helps to locate the villain. In many ways Thorndyke's skills mirror those of Sherlock Holmes but he goes a step further and shows how the science can be used to subvert justice. Thorndyke's first case, The Red Thumb Mark was published in 1907 and was unlikely to have endeared its author to the police or prosecution lawyers. In it Thorndyke demonstrates how a bloody thumbprint could be faked. This involved not only transferring the accused man's print onto another surface but also adding chemicals to keep the blood from setting. In The Red Thumb Mark Freeman strikes at the belief that expert witnesses were infallible and fingerprint evidence was incontestable.
pioneers of forensic science as a means of detection. In A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, Holmes investigates the properties of haemoglobin and explains to Watson: 'It is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don't you see that it gives us an infallible test for bloodstains.' In reality the test to distinguish human blood from animal blood was not developed until 1901 and was used in 1904 to bring the murderer of two children to justice.
identifying a murder weapon as inconvenient, but others embraced it. In 1929, a year after the landmark real-life case, Annie Haynes based the entire plot of The Crime at Tattenham Corner upon the striation marks in two otherwise identical weapons.
Wimsey often employs Lubbock to do scientific analysis for him but at other times he undertakes it himself, with the help of the invaluable Bunter, as in Strong Poison (1930)where the results of a test may serve to
It is fascinating to consider that in 1929 when Margery Allingham published The Crime at Black Dudley she had intended the character who is central to the book, pathologist, George Abbershaw, to be her long-term series hero. However both public and publisher fell in love with Albert Campion, who had a comparatively minor part to play in the book. It's hard to imagine Allingham being remembered for forensic pathologist mysteries, and anyway, what would the world be without Campion?