The fingerprinting system plays a huge role in identifying criminals, especially when it comes to crime scene investigations. But sometimes we forget that it hasn’t always been around.
Criminal fingerprinting was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and some believe events involving two inmates at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, played a huge role in why the practice came about. That’s because not only were the unrelated men practically identical, but they also shared the same name. After being mistaken as the same prisoner, Will and William West had to be fingerprinted so authorities could tell them apart.
As the story goes, Will West became an inmate at the penitentiary in 1903. When asked if he’d been imprisoned there before, he said no. The records clerk, M.W. McClaughry, took his physical measurements anyway as part of the Bertillon system, the previously dominant method of criminal identification.
Will’s measurements were found to be as the exact same as those of William West, another inmate who’d been imprisoned there two years earlier and was serving a life sentence for murder. The photo in his file even looked identical to Will, which understandably caused quite a bit of confusion.
When impressions of Will and William’s fingerprints were taken and compared, it turned out that Will had been telling the truth — their prints were different. Now they’re said to have played a very important role in the introduction of fingerprinting.
However, some experts question these claims, pointing out that M.W. McClaughry didn’t mention the Wests at all in either of the articles he wrote about fingerprinting and the Bertillon system, despite being directly involved in the incident.