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Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science Hardcover – May 9, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Beavan's lively debut explores developments in criminal forensics that culminated in the first prosecution based on fingerprint evidence, in London in 1905. He opens his narrative with the wanton double murder of the elderly Farrows and the crude initial investigation. Beavan, a writer for Esquire and other magazines, examines at length the slow scientific inroads into 19th-century law enforcement. Following the sharp decline in hanging offenses, European societies were swept by hysteria regarding multi-aliased career criminals. Officials reluctantly explored ways of confirming identities of repeat offenders, notably Alphonse Bertillon's anthropometric system, which posited that "criminal" body types could be identified by minute bodily measurements. Several British bureaucrats had experimented with inked fingerprints for identification, but Henry Faulds, an impoverished Scottish medical missionary in Japan, definitively claimed that fingerprints' particular qualities were ideal for criminal prosecution. Faulds's early publications spawned fingerprint science; unfortunately, his thunder was stolen by the ambitious, better-positioned Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin), whom Beavan portrays as an effete plagiarist. Police in South America and India ventured into this terra incognita, but Scotland Yard fiercely resisted. Only tragic anthropometric and eyewitness misidentifications led grudging officials to use the Farrows trial as a test case. The embittered Faulds served as a defense witness, contending that single-digit identification, the basis for this ultimately successful prosecution, was unreliable. This entertaining and balanced work centers less on academic precepts than does Simon Cole's Suspect Identities (see review below). Beavan's effortless prose, firm grasp of his subject and vividly drawn characters will delight history buffs and armchair criminologists. Photos and illus. (May)Forecast: This is a charmer that, with good reviews and effective promotion, could catch on outside the true-crime crowd. There will also be online promotion at the Web site

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Loops, whorls, arches, or tents--scrutinize your fingertips and you'll see these basic designs. A collection of characters made the same examination a century ago, and from their disputes has descended the modern fingerprint system. Yet a competing system of identification vied with fingerprinting, as this book interestingly points out. In the rapidly urbanizing societies of the late nineteenth century, where personal recognition was the fallible means of identification, imposture was easy for habitual criminals and frustrating to police and victims. The search for unique, and hence identifying, characteristics of the human body inspired eventually the fingerprinting system and a competitor called "anthropometry."

Beavan courses through this subject in lively, true-crime story telling fashion, opening with a murder scene and closing with the 1905 hanging of the two British brothers convicted on the basis of a thumbprint. Within those brackets, Beavan introduces several men who independently came to believe that a person's fingerprints were unique, his hero being one Henry Faulds, a Scottish doctor whose wrangles with William Herschel and Francis Galton, famous in their day, lend Beavan his dramatic material. Meanwhile, in the musty archives of the Paris police, clerk Alphonse Bertillon chafed at the uselessness of his records for identifying recidivists; his reform of physically measuring criminals and systematizing their classification--anthropometry--was used by many police organizations until the 1920s. In recounting the cases that displaced bertillonage, Beavan adopts an appealing human-interest approach that chimes with popularity Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion; 1st edition (May 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786866071
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786866076
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,977,741 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

As the news stories go: "Colin Beavan is a liberal schlub who got tired of listening to himself complain about the world without ever actually doing anything about it..." Thus, in November, 2006, Beavan launched a year-long project in which he, his wife, his two-year-old daughter and his four-year-old dog went off the grid and attempted to live in the middle of New York City with as little environmental impact as possible.

The point of the project was to experiment with ways of living that might both improve quality of life and be less harmful to the planet. It also provided a narrative vehicle by which to attract broad public attention to the range of pressing environmental crises including: food system sustainability, climate change, water scarcity, and materials and energy resource depletion.

Beavan's experiment in lifestyle redesign is the subject of his book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and a Sundance-selected documentary by independent film producers Laura Gabbert (Sunset Story, Getting to Know You) and Eden Wurmfeld (The Hammer, Puccini for Beginners, Kissing Jessica Stein). Both the book and the documentary will be released in September, 2009. Columbia Pictures also plans to make a feature film (produced by Todd Black) based on the book.

Beavan writes and administers the provocative environmental blog NoImpactMan.Com, which has become a meeting point for discussion of environmental issues from a "deep green" perspective. In addition to some 2,500 daily visitors and 4,000 daily page views, the site has 10,000 email and "newsreader" subscribers. About 1.8 million people have visited the blog since he established it a year and a half ago.

Beavan was named one of MSN's Ten Most Influential Men of 2007 and was named an Eco-Illuminator in Elle Magazine's 2008 Green Awards. His blog was named one of the world's top 15 environmental websites by Time Magazine. He was named a 2008 Eco-Star by New York City's Lower East Side Ecology Center.

The No Impact project has been the subject of stories in the New York Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and many other national and international news outlets. Beavan has appeared on The Colbert Report, Good Morning America, Nightline, The Montel Show, and all the major NPR shows. He speaks regularly to a wide variety of audiences, is frequently quoted in the press and consults to business on the intersection of sustainability and human quality of life.

Beavan is a PhD electronic engineer (University of Liverpool). He spent the late 80s and early 90s as a consultant to philanthropic organizations such as social housing providers, drug treatment agencies and hospitals, helping them to promote themselves in order to secure increasingly scarce, Thatcher-era funding.

In 1992 Beavan returned to the United States and wrote for magazines until Hyperion published his first book Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science (a popular history of criminology) in 2001. In 2006, Viking published his second book, Operation Jedburgh: D-Day and America's First Shadow (about the operation that formed the precedent for U.S. anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan).

He is director of the No Impact Project, a visiting scholar at NYU, an advisor to the University's Sustainability Task Force, and sits on the board of directors of New York City's Transportation Alternatives and on the advisory council of Just Food.

Customer Reviews

As a lover of crime stories and detective novels in general, I was very interested in this book.
Michelle Kopper Seymour
[If Galton stole from Faulds it could be due to heredity (p.104)!] Galton’s 1992 book “Finger Prints” was very comprehensive and provided a systematic proof (p.110).
Acute Observer
The personalities and politics of the people and time in history help make this book interesting reading.
J. Mock

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Daryl W. Clemens on June 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, this book is sure to appeal to people in the fingerprint profession, and to those who love history. The book centers around "The Shocking Tragedy at Deptford", the murder case which became the first in the United Kingdom which was solved through the use of fingerprint evidence. (There were earlier cases in other countries, and an account of one from Argentina is also included in the text).
After an account of the crime, the investigation and the suspects arrest, the author moves back in time to give an overview of the early criminal justice system. Identification of criminals was a problem, particularly attempting to identify repeat offenders. The author includes an account of the work done by the early pioneers in identification, including the struggle among them over who should get credit for the discovery of fingerprints. Some readers found this part of the book less interesting, but I was fascinated. The people who historically have been given credit for the origination of fingerprint identification, don't necessarily deserve it.
He then returns to the crime and gives an account of the trial. Fingerprints are now the most widely accepted proof of identity, but at that time the courts had not had this sort of evidence presented to them, so it was not an open and shut case by any means.
Colleagues of mine who are fingerprint examiners both enjoyed the book very much. They commented that, "It really shows that he's done his homework", and that "everyone should enjoy it".
I'd have to agree, this is quite simply the best book that I've read on the history of fingerprint identification.
Daryl W. Clemens, Editor,
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
We are used to fingerprints as forensic evidence these days, but fingerprints have only been accepted for legal identification and detection for less than a century. In the prosecution of a particularly brutal murder in 1905, Scotland Yard introduced fingerprints to the courtroom, after decades of rejecting their use. The history of early fingerprinting makes surprisingly good reading in _Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science_ (Hyperion) by Colin Beavan.
The horrid murder serves as introduction to the book, and its resolution by fingerprint is the climax. In between is a fascinating story that involves legal philosophy as well as science and history. For instance, throughout most legal history, the only evidence allowed in court was eyewitness testimony; even now, the words of an eyewitness are thought by the public to be especially weighty, although it has become clear especially in the last decades that memories are malleable and that eyewitness testimony is often worse than useless. Physical evidence was held to be too likely to be manipulated; juries relied on hearing what people remembered seeing with their own eyes rather than what experts said they could deduce by objective methods. Science had wrought the changes of the industrial revolution, but had not touched the judiciary.
There was a system that had been invented by a Frenchman, Alphonse Bertillon, consisting of numerous, minute body measurements, such as finger and forearm lengths. This was the competition to fingerprinting, whose advantages were less obvious. A Scotland-born doctor, Henry Faulds, while in Japan as a missionary, noticed that there were finger impressions in ancient pottery, and began to study fingerprints as unique identifiers.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Gavan Tredoux on November 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Unlike others who have read and praised this book I have had the opportunity to consult the original source materials, soon to be made available at Beavan grossly misrepresents those he lists, and simply omits others with direct bearing on the origin of fingerprinting. His (ludicrous) allegation of a conspiracy between Galton and Herschel to denigrate Faulds is without foundation and supported only by quotation from Herschel with creative elipsis by Beavan, a process that borders on academic fraud. Beavan accuses Galton of writing an unsigned review (Nature, 1905) of Fauld's book on fingerprints, thereby "hiding behind the mask of anonymity" but the review is signed, as were all Galton's reviews in Nature, "F. G." - though few readers would now be able to check this. There are many other examples (e.g. Beavan accuses Galton of discarding a letter from Faulds to Darwin, which Darwin had forwarded to Galton, whereas Galton actually forwarded it to the Anthropological Society - but Beavan could not know this because he failed to consult the authoritative biography of Galton by Karl Pearson.)
Faulds actually had little role in the origin of fingerprinting, because he failed to put evidence together and publish it. Between 1880 and 1900 he published just two items about the subject, both of them informal letters and not even papers. The first (Nature, 1880) contained speculation based on just one year of experience in the area. The second (Nature, 1894) was an embarrasing tirade against William Herschel (who was the first to use fingerprints in practice), in which Faulds challenged Herschel to produce documents to substantiate the use of fingerprints in India some 20 years prior to Faulds' speculations. Herschel duly produced a critical document, which was published in Nature.
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