The name Harry Jackson does not sit with the likes of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub four-minute mile, Nicholas Brakspear, the first, and thus far only English pope, and Trevor Francis, the subject of England’s first million pound football transfer. But Jackson claims an English first just like each of the aforementioned. He was the first man on these islands to be convicted by fingerprint evidence.
Jackson had committed a burglary in Denmark Hill, London on 27th June 1902, which netted him a haul of, of all things, some billiard balls. An officer from the recently-formed Fingerprint Branch found imprints on a windowsill, which were proven to belong to Jackson. The hapless burglar was sent down for seven years, completely unaware that over a century later his name would crop up on Internet searches.
Newfangled Form of Evidence
While there were those who doubted this newfangled form of evidence, at least Jackson was still alive. He would be able to enjoy the benefits of any pardon that may have come his way, should fingerprint evidence be dismissed as insufficiently tested or otherwise unreliable. A pertinent question at the time was would fingerprint evidence, which was still in its infancy, ever be deemed reliable enough to send a man, or woman, into the irreversible confines of the execution shed? The answer came in 1905.
Seventy-year-old Thomas Farrow worked as manager of Chapman’s Oil and Colour Store in Deptford, South London. He lived above the shop with his wife, Ann, who was five years his junior. It was customary for the owner of the business to open the shop early, in order to supply customers on their way to work.
On the morning of 27th March, 1905, sixteen-year-old William Jones arrived at the shop on an errand, but found the doors closed, a most unusual occurrence. After knocking on the door several times, the youth peered through a window. On seeing the shop in a state of some disarray, he sought help.
A Grim Discovery
With the assistance of a local man, Louis Kidman, the pair forced entry to the shop from the rear of the building Inside, they came across the body of the elderly Mr Farrow, and his wife, alive, but unconscious in another room. She died of her injuries a few days later.
The police got their first clue in a pair of crude masks made from an old stocking and string, which had been discarded on the premises. The need for a disguise suggested that the robbers were known to their victims. And so, working on the inference that the culprits were local men, police focused their attention on the rogues and villains of the Deptford area.
Among those to fall under suspicion were brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton. The girlfriend of the latter told police that Albert had come home on the morning of the crime with newly-found affluence, the source of which he refused to divulge.
The brothers were arrested, and a partial thumbprint on a metal cash box found at the scene of the crime matched Albert’s own print. This breakthrough was viewed with caution, however, as the science of fingerprint identification was still in its infancy, and police knew that having it accepted in a court of law when two lives were at stake would be a challenge.
At the time of the Strattons’ trial. the recently-formed Fingerprint Branch at Scotland Yard had only some 85,000 sets of prints on its files. It would be a difficult task to convince the jury of the irrefutability of this fledgling science, so the prosecution called Mr Richard Muir, who was an expert on the matter.
After explaining how the process of fingerprint identification worked, Mr Muir then took the prints of one of the jurymen, which were then handed to the jury for examination. Of course the defence did its best to refute the new science. Mr H G Rooth, who was defending Alfred Stratton, called the method unreliable, saying it “savoured more of the French courts than of English justice,”
The defence called several experts who refuted the reliability of fingerprint evidence, and the judge himself voiced concerns at its infallibility. But the jury had been won over and a verdict of guilty came in on both men, whose lives came to an abrupt end on a morning in May 1905.
Other Notable Cases
Since the trial of the Strattons, fingerprint evidence has become widely accepted in the courts, and many notorious murderers have been undone after leaving behind their dabs. These included:
- The monocled rogue Harold Dorian Trevor, who left a print on the beer bottle he smashed over his victim’s head (that gentleman was decent enough to leave his written name at the scene of the crime).
- The ghastly Gordon Cummins, known as the Blackout Ripper, who left his digital signature on a glass candlestick, a beer bottle, and a tumbler. He murdered four women.
- Child killer, Peter Griffiths, whose crime so appalled the people of Blackburn, 46,000 of them gave their prints in order to be eliminated. Griffiths slipped through that net, but was later caught.
Dr. Edmond Locard, a French forensic science pioneer, stated that every contact leaves a trace. For those referred to above, that contact would cost them their lives.
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