by | Mar 9, 2021 | Mystery Minute | 8 comments

A Thumb Print and What Came of It

In America, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, (Mark Twain, 1835-1910), was the first to introduce fingerprinting into fiction. In his memoir, Life on the Mississippi, he wrote a chapter entitled, “A Thumb Print and What Came of it.” (James R. Osgood & Co.,1883).

Twain claims to have gotten the idea from an old French prison keeper who told him “there was one thing about a person which never changed from cradle to grave—the lines on the ball of the thumb—and they were never exactly alike in the thumbs of any two human beings.” From that notion grew Pudd’nhead Wilson, a mystery based upon identification of fingerprints.

Picture Dawson’s Landing, a fictional Missouri frontier town on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the first half of the 19th century. This is the setting for Twain’s satiric crime story, Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, which was first serialized in The Century Magazine (1893-1894) and then published as the novel The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Charles L. Webster & Company (1894).

Mark Twain in New York City in 1883, the year
he wrote “The Thumb Print.” “Courtesy of the Center for Mark
Twain Studies, Elmira College, Elmira, New York.”

The story revolves around two boys: Valet de Chambre (or Chambers) who was born into slavery (with 1/32 black ancestry) and Tom Driscoll who was born white. The boys look similar and are switched in their cribs by a young slave girl who fears for the safety of her light-skinned child. She switches her son with that of her master’s. Each grows into the other’s social role.

David Wilson, an unsuccessful lawyer, moves to town and makes a clever remark which is misunderstood. That causes locals to brand him a “pudd’nhead” or nitwit. When a murder occurs, Wilson solves the mystery in a courtroom scene where he uses fingerprints left on a knife to announce the real murderer.

Writing in Courthouse News Service, (Oct. 28, 2009), Adam Klasfeld said, “Twain turned out to be as prophetic a forensic analyst as he was a social critic. Fingerprinting was a fringe idea at the time this novel was published, vaguely known about but rarely practiced in criminal justice until the turn of the century.”

In 1892, British scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) published Finger Prints, his treatise on classifying a person’s digital marks. The treatise was published nine years after Twain’s short story, A Thumb Print.

That same year, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, detective Juan Vucetich solved a murder using thumbprints found at the crime scene. This is considered to be the first homicide solved by fingerprint evidence.

Sir Francis Galton displayed his own
fingerprints on his title page,
Finger Prints
(London: Macmillan and Co., 1892).

In June 1902, Scotland Yard, a metonym for London’s Metropolitan Police headquarters, solved its first burglary case based on fingerprints when the accused left an impression of his left thumb on a newly painted windowsill.

Later in October of 1902, France’s landmark Scheffer case was the first to identify, arrest, and convict a murderer based upon fingerprint evidence. Alphonse Bertillon identified the thief and murderer, Henri Leon Scheffer, when his prints were found on a fractured glass showcase after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead. Scheffer had previously been arrested and his fingerprints were already on file.

Bertillon (1853-1914) was Paris’ chief of criminal identification and subsequently developed anthropometry, or the Bertillon system, which measured twelve characteristics of the body. It helped to determine if arrested suspects had been involved in previous crimes.

In 1903, the state of New York developed the American Classification System of fingerprinting all criminals and the science of fingerprinting spread nationwide. The following year, the U.S. Government recorded fingerprints of inmates at Leavenworth, KS federal prison which marked the beginning of the government’s fingerprint collection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) short story, The Norwood Builder (The Strand Magazine, 1903), features his celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes in which the discovery of a bloody fingerprint helps him expose the real criminal and free his client.

The British writer R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) wrote a series of medical-legal detective novels featuring Dr. John Thorndyke, which set the stage for the forensic science detective novel. His first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark (Collingwood, 1907), involves a forged bloody fingerprint left on a piece of paper together with a parcel of diamonds inside a safe box. Dr. Thorndyke investigates and defends the accused whose fingerprint matches that on the paper, but after the diamonds had been stolen.

In his investigation, Dr. Thorndyke compares his client’s thumb print with his aunt’s Thumbograph, which was a popular form of autograph book sold in England in the early 1900s. People often captured fingerprints of relatives, friends, and others they admired, and used the exercise as an after-dinner amusement. A person would ink a finger and print it on the right side of the Thumbograph and autograph the left with a date. The Thumbograph also appears and disappears from a locked library in the 1938 mystery novel, The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) published by Hamish Hamilton, UK and Harper, US.

Freeman shaped other stories around forged fingerprints in “The Old Lag” (1912), “The Cat’s Eye (1923), Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight (1930), and When Rogues Fall Out (1932)—an appropriate title for this edition, I might add.

British science journalist Laura Spinney writing in Nature (March 17, 2010) says, “Even fingerprinting’s harshest critics concede that the technique is probably more accurate than identification methods based on hair, blood type, ear prints or anything else except DNA. Granted, no one has ever tested its underlying premise, which is that every print on every finger is unique. But no one seriously doubts it, either. The ridges and furrows on any given fingertip develop in the womb, shaped by such a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors that not even identical twins share prints. Barring damage, moreover, the pattern is fixed for life. And thanks to the skin’s natural oiliness, it will leave an impression on almost any surface the fingertip touches.”

Editor Louise Harnby writes an excellent blog, “Fingerprint forensics for beginner crime-fiction writers,” in which she offers tips to help writers get the science right in fiction, as well as a list of valuable resources. Another excellent resource is The Fingerprint Sourcebook, published by the U.S. Department of Justice which can be read free online, and Fingerprints: The Origin of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science, by Colin Bevan (Hyperion, 2001).


• Long before Twain was born, a treatise was written in China (about 200 B.C.) on the potential for using fingerprints as a means of identification and used as evidence in a burglary investigation during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.). In the age of Babylon (about 4,000 years ago) fingerprints were used to sign written contracts and records have shown that officials took fingerprints of people who had been arrested. Unfortunately, this knowledge was lost to folklore and during Twain’s lifetime, no system existed for the forensic use of fingerprints.

• Since 1924, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has managed a database which today contains an estimated 70 million fingerprints and more than 1.5 million non-criminal fingerprint records. Its Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System examines more than 85,000 inquiries per year and can respond in about 27 minutes.

• The scientific study of fingerprinting is called dermatoglyphics, a term invented in the 1920s and founded by Harold Cummins, M.D. (1894-1976).

By Z. J. Czupor

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  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a fascinating history lesson on fingerprinting and how its use has led to so many crimes being solved. Thanks for this — I learned so much!!! Karna Small Bodman

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Karna. There’s so much more to this story and other pioneers in the field that I found fascinating.

  2. Chris Goff

    Wow. I had no idea that fingerprinting was that old. Very interesting!

    • ZJ Czupor

      I didn’t realize it was that old either until I started digging. Now my fingerprints are everywhere.

  3. Lisa Black

    Aaannd there's the controversy over whether Dalton and Hershel actually thought of using fingerprints to identify criminals first, or Henry Faulds, a British missionary working in Japan, who first used it to figure out which of his assistants had been drinking the lab alcohol!

    • ZJ Czupor

      Indeed, Lisa. Lot of characters involved in this field.

    • ZJ Czupor

      Thank you Maddee!