The Finger of Blame

On the night of 26th June 1902 petty thief Harry Jackson broke into a billiard room situated where King’s College Hospital now stands on Denmark Hill and pocketed some balls. He left behind a grimy thumb print on the newly-painted windowsill and in so doing British legal history was made.

The billiards room’s parlour maid pointed out Jackson’s print to Detective Sergeant Collins, who duly photographed it.

[A] few months later Jackson was caught lurking on the roof of another billiard room at a Brixton pub carrying with him a bag of tools.

In court DS Collins argued that the print found at Denmark Hill matched one taken from Jackson after his arrest. The accused, who clearly had a thing about billiard balls, simply said in his defence “I know nothing”.

The jury thought Jackson did know something, he got 7 years and British criminal history was made. The first person convicted using fingerprints as evidence.

In the past the police had used the Bertillion method of distinguishing crooks, by measurements of the body: size of head; ears; arms; fingers; and feet. When Scottish missionary doctor Henry Faulds approached Scotland Yard in 1880 with the idea of using fingerprints as evidence he was dismissed as a crank.

Others agreed, after Harry Jackson’s conviction ‘A Disgusted Magistrate’ wrote a letter to The Times:

Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe it if insists on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their skins.

Assistant Commissioner Edward Henry of the CID at Scotland Yard didn’t agree with Disgusted of the Bench. The previous year he had set up the Fingerprint Branch after reading of successful convictions for murder in Argentina and India based on fingerprint evidence.

But it would be another 3 years before fingerprints were used as evidence in a British court. This time for a far more serious offence than the hapless serial billiard ball thief.

In Deptford at 7 o’clock in the morning of 27th March 1905 Thomas Farrow was yet to open the paint shop that he managed when he heard a knock and opened the door. Entering the shop his assailants were not interested in purchasing 5 litres of brilliant white, but demanded the week’s takings due to be collected later that day.

Thomas died at the scene after receiving at least six blows to the head from a crow bar, his wife, found still in her bed, was to die 4 days later from similar injuries received.

A pair of milkmen described seeing 2 men coming out of the paint shop, but were unable to subsequently identify them. Another witness had seen two men running down the High Street and recognised one as Alfred Stratton.

The crime had left police with a dilemma, no sign of forced entry, no murder weapon and no reliable eye witnesses, with only Alfred’s girlfriend’s statement that he had returned home with money and smelling of paraffin.

The only conclusive evidence was a left thumbprint left in sweat on the cash box which matched Alfred Stratton. He was arrested and put on trial with his brother at the Old Bailey, although the case was weak and circumstantial.

Not only were the Stratton Brothers in the dock also on trial was the science of fingerprinting.

Giving evidence, Detective Inspector Charles Collins (note the promotion) told the jury:

At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of finger prints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits. In my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond . . . I found that Alfred’s right thumb corresponded with the mark on the cash box and I prepared for the purpose of comparison an enlargement of the mark upon the cash box, and one practically on the same scale of the right thumb of Alfred . . . I have indicated by red lines and figures eleven characteristics in which those two prints agree . . . I did not find any characteristic which is visible in the print on the cash box which does not agree.

It took the jury 2 hours to find the brothers guilty of murder and on 23rd May 1905 they were hanged.

Meanwhile Harry Jackson was still detained at His Majesty’s pleasure dreaming of the day when he could resume stealing billiard balls again.

If you want a more detailed (and grizzly) account of the Stratton Brothers crime it can be found at MurderMap.

2 thoughts on “The Finger of Blame”

  1. It may seem laughable to us today that anyone could doubt the effectiveness of using fingerprints to identify the perpetrators of crimes but we may recall that a much more recent innovation in the fight against crime was similarly criticised when it was first used. I refer, of course, to the matching of DNA samples.

    The fact that no two people have ever been known to have the same fingerprint pattern does not mean that this could not happen. The odds against it are enormous but precisely because the pattern depends on chance variations, a match between two people isn’t entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, especially when you consider that a limited number of parameters is used in matching. In the same way, some experts warn that modern DNA testing uses too few points of comparison, meaning that samples from two different people could seem to be identical. We will not know for sure unless and until a provable case occurs.

    Fortunately, forensic science has been developed to a remarkable degree with the result that DNA and fingerprints are usually only part of the array of evidence used to convict the guilty.


    1. I seems incredible that just over 100 years ago the police used the Bertillion method of distinguishing crooks by measurements of the body: size of head; ears; arms; fingers; and feet. How the appliance of proven science has enriched our lives.


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