Handprints and Stature: What’s Old Is Now New

29 Apr

Hand prints are often left at crime scenes and, if a suspect is generated, the crime scene print can be compared with one obtained from the suspect. If a match is made the suspect indeed left the print at the scene. But what if there is no suspect? Nothing to compare the print with. Here a description of the perpetrator can be very helpful. But what can a single hand print tell us about what the person looks like?

A recent study by forensic anthropologist Professor Daniel Franklin and his team at the University of Western Australia suggests that the height and possibly the sex of the perpetrator can be estimated from the print.

This harkens to the days of anthropometry, or bertillonage as it was termed. By the end of the 19th century, fingerprinting had not yet been fully accepted and vied with Anthropometry and Bertillonage as the standard identification method in criminal investigations.
Anthropometry (anthrop means human; metry means to measure) is the study of human body measurements for anthropological classification and comparison. Simply put, it is the making of body measurements in order to compare individuals with each other.


French police officer Alphonse Bertillon believed that the human skeleton did not change in size from about age 20 and that each person’s measurements were unique. He also believed that people could be distinguished from one another by key measurements, such as height, seated height from head to seat, length and width of the head, right ear length, left little finger length, the width of the cheeks, and other measurements. He created a system of body measurements that became known as bertillonage. According to Bertillon, the odds of two people having the same bertillonage measurements were 286 million to one.


His greatest triumph came in February 1883, when he measured a thief named Dupont and compared his profile against his files of known criminals. He found that Dupont’s measurements matched a man named Martin. Dupont ultimately confessed that he was indeed Martin.

For years, this system was accepted by many jurisdictions, but early in the 20th century flaws became apparent. Measurements were inexact and subject to observer variation since measurements in two people who were of the same size, weight, and body type varied by only fractions of a centimeter. The measurement system wasn’t exact enough to make such distinctions. The final blow to the Bertillonage system occurred with the famous Will West case.

Though landmark in its importance, the Will West case was more a comical coincidence. On May 1, 1903, Will West entered Kansas’ Leavenworth Penitentiary, where the records clerk thought he looked familiar. West denied ever having been in the prison. As part of his intake examination, anthropometry was performed and officials were surprised to find that Will’s measurements matched those of another inmate at Leavenworth named William West. The two men did look eerily similar, but each stated that they did not know each other and that they were not brothers. Fingerprints were then used to distinguish between the two Wills after which Leavenworth immediately dumped anthropometry and switched to a fingerprint-based system for identifying prisoners. New York’s Sing Sing Prison followed a month later.

Was the similarity between Will and William West simply a bizarre coincidence? Not really. A report in The Journal of Police Science and Administration in 1980 revealed that the two were likely identical twins. They possessed many fingerprint similarities, nearly identical ear configurations (unusual in any circumstance except with identical twins), and each of the men wrote letters to the same brother, same five sisters, and same Uncle George. So, even though the brothers denied it, it seemed that they were related after all.


Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Handprints and Stature: What’s Old Is Now New

  1. Elaine Abramson aka E.S. Abramson

    April 30, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Doug, My fingers do not have ridges, only whorles. I was born that way. When I had my fingerprints taken for a job, I was told that the FBI could not identify me because I do not have ridges in my finger prints, that it has something to do with their classification system. How would something similar apply to criminals? Prisoners? Twins? Etc? If identical twins were involved in a crime, would both of them have this problem? If so, how would the authorities distinguish one twin from the other?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 30, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      I think you’re mixed up here. All prints are ridges–it’s the ridges that lay down the patterns that make up the fingerprints. They are then classified into whorls, and arches, and loops, etc. by the pattern of the ridge lines. I think you might mean arches. The classification system uses whorls and arches and other patterns to narrow down the search which is then done by hand by an individual before a match is proclaimed. But unless you are one of those that has no ridges you have a fingerprint and it could be matched to you. But a paucity of features such as whorls and arches, etc. might make using AFIS problematic.


  2. Brenda

    April 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Do you remember the case where the man on death row in Texas turned out to be innocent but LOOKED ALMOST EXACTLY like the actual perp? I have been trying to remember the name & wondered if they were something like identical twins or at least cousins who did not know it. I think August 1990 or 1991 was the date that the innocent one was let out of prison after being imprisoned for years. The only place I ever saw the photos was in the Columbus (Ohio) Post-Dispatch where it was clear why a witness would have mistaken the identity. I always expected to read more about the case and never have.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

      I vaguely remember this too but can’t recall the names involved. Does anyone? If you find out let us all know.



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