Early Nonsystematic Methods of Identification

Criminal identification is an age-old problem. That is, how might one individual be identified sufficiently to separate that individual from others? Early mankind had no way to use a systematic method to identify an individual. What was utilized? Simple recognition was the method. This was a crude form of classification: Starting with the largest unit (the group) and separating point by point (recognition) until the desired subject is remaining (the individual). As time progressed and mankind became a bit more learned, better methods were chosen to distinguish one person from another. But the central question remained: How does one describe another so others will recognize the individual being described? The ideal identification system enables the orator or operator to say with a high degree of certainty that the subject is the desired person.

From the perspective of tribal man, the manner in which individuals were identified was simple association and recognition. These were non- mobile societies, so most individuals knew one another. Those individuals traveled in the same groups for gathering, hunting, socialization, and protection. Obviously, it was much easier to recognize members of the group than it was to distinguish individual outsiders.

As time evolved, and for specificity, the tribes or groups began to consciously alter their appearance to set them apart from others. This was accomplished through intentional or unintentional infliction of specific markings on the individuals such as scars or disfigurement. As the tribe or family wanted to set itself apart from others, it became commonplace for that family to mark itself with the likes of caste marks, tattoos, or even simple tribal dress. For those who offended the group, intentional mutilation was chosen for wrongdoing to mark those persons who were outcasts. Mutilation was carried out in the form of altering offending limbs, changing facial features, or in some instances, amputation. Other methods of distinguishing an individual were to brand the individual with a specific mark, possibly denoting a specific offense. Some emerging countries throughout the world still use this manner of individualization as a form of punishment today. As the sophistication of tribes grew and they developed into communities and societies, the need for identification became more pronounced as the issue of mobility came to the forefront. Forced transportation from one country to another became another issue to distinguish individuals. Many of the methods of identification in the New World or new colonies were borrowed from the already entrenched societies. Newer, more humane methods to mark or identify individuals were seen in the form of mechanical devices such as stocks and boots, or public humiliation in the form of sitting or being placed in a basket or swinging in the public square. All of these methods served a purpose when taken in context of the times. One other distinguishing attribute that we often do not think about is that of language. The language spoken, the type of dialect, and any specific nuances that may be used in speaking are powerful forms of identification. Flow often has it been said that two people are speaking the same language but cannot understand each other? Again, this example is a method of distinguishing one individual from another due to a specific trait.

Today we know that a mistake-proof method of identification is required. Due to the mobility of our societies, a method of identification that can provide an absolute identification within minutes is required. The anonymity of society today necessitates a reliable method of identifying someone. Simply put, how many of you really know your neighbors?

Anonymity has become commonplace in many societies worldwide. We can see that today, more so than any other time in history, the necessity of identifying and apprehending a wrongdoer swiftly and accurately is paramount and a necessary part of our criminal justice system. No longer can we afford to be complacent as the potential damage to the greater society can be enormous. For example, with the availability of modern modes of transportation, an individual who commits a crime, if not apprehended in short order, may be in another jurisdiction, state, or country within a matter of minutes or hours.

Never in the history of mankind has the ability to identify and individualize a person been greater than it is today. The amount of destruction and carnage that can be inflicted by one individual necessitates an excellent, systematic method of identification. We, as a worldwide criminal identification community, are required by the times to do all in our power to identify criminal perpetrators and victims of crime, as well as to possess the ability to assist in civil disasters. The task of the criminal identification specialist or practitioner is an ongoing process that remains, at times, overwhelming. We must strive to persevere.

Without studying the basics, one cannot comprehend the complex.

—Author unknown

Study Questions

  • 1. What evidence exists that fingerprints were understood to be unique to the individual in ancient times?
  • 2. What do we mean when we say that identification is based on classification?
  • 3. What are the Galton details?
  • 4. What contribution did each of the following individuals make to the science of fingerprints?

a. Nehemiah Grew

b. J.C.A. Mayer

c. Johannes Purkinje

d. Sir William Herschel

e. Dr. Henry Faulds

f. Juan Vucetich

g. Sir Francis Galton

h. Sir Edward Henry

i. Sgt. John Ferrier

j. Mary E. Holland

  • 5. What was the recommendation of the Belper Commission?
  • 6. Explain why there was a reluctance to accept fingerprints as an absolute method of identification in the early years.
  • 7. An ideal identification system serves to do what?
  • 8. Who is credited with the first criminal identification through the use of fingerprints?
  • 9. Name the various methods of identification prior to Bertillon.
  • 10. The study of fingerprints is similar to any other science. What does that statement mean?
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