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US Fact check: Claim linking widespread fingerprint use to nearly identical inmates misses mark

07:05  27 october  2021
07:05  27 october  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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Human fingerprints are detailed, nearly unique, difficult to alter, and durable over the life of an individual, making them suitable as long-term markers of human identity . They may be employed by police or other authorities to identify individuals who wish to conceal their identity , or to identify people who are incapacitated or deceased and thus unable to identify themselves, as in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Obtaining fingerprints from a dead human, to aid identification, is hindered by the fact that only the coroner or medical examiner is allowed to examine the dead body.

While earlier vaccinations used a weakened or inactivated form of a virus, mRNA vaccines instruct cells to make a specific protein to trigger an immune response ( here ). These vaccines have been found to prevent symptomatic and severe effects of COVID-19 ( here ). Research is ongoing to determine whether the vaccines have an effect on transmission. False. mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are designed to induce an immune response and to protect a person against the disease. This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact - check social media posts here .

The claim: Two nearly identical male prisoners are the reason why fingerprints are used to identify people

Fingerprints are unique, and most law enforcement agencies rely upon them to identify people. But how did that practice get started?

A Facebook post claims it was after two nearly identical men were sent to the same prison.

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"These two men look nearly identical, they had the same name, and they were sent to the same prison," the Oct. 18 post reads. "Before imprisonment, they had never met. They are the reason why fingerprints are used to identify people."

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The post, which includes photos of two strikingly similar men dressed in the same clothes, accrued more than 100 shares and 1,400 reactions in less than a day.

Analyzing someone's fingerprints is one form of biometrics, the use of people's physical or biological characteristics to identify them, according to Interpol. No two people have the same fingerprints, not even identical twins.

The story of William and Will West, the two men in the picture, is true. But experts say the odd circumstance wasn't as pivotal to the widespread adoption of fingerprinting as the post claims.

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USA TODAY reached out to the user who posted the claim for comment.

Will and William West, prisoners who entered Leavenworth two years apart

In 1903, Will West was taken to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, where the clerk at the admissions desk recognized him despite West never having stepped into the prison before, according to FBI records.

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fingerprint , impression made by the papillary ridges on the ends of the fingers and thumbs. Fingerprints afford an infallible means of personal identification, because the ridge arrangement on every finger of every human being is unique and does not alter with growth or age. Though the technique and its systematic use originated in Great Britain, fingerprinting was developed to great usefulness in the United States, where in 1924 two large fingerprint collections were consolidated to form the nucleus of the present file maintained by the Identification Division of the FBI.

It turned out that West looked almost identical to William West, another inmate who had been there since 1901 serving a life sentence.

Records of inmates at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary indicate there was a "Will West," identified with number 927, and a "William West," with number 9372, between 1895 and 1931. Records don't show pictures or specify how long they were in prison.

Both men shared almost the same Bertillon measurements, the FBI website said.

The Bertillon System had become the standard method of identifying convicts throughout Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, according to New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services. The system took measurements of certain parts of the person's body, including the skull width, left middle finger and foot length. Along with photographs, there were also annotations of the person's hair and eye color.

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Will and William's fingerprints were taken to corroborate they were different people, the FBI wrote.

Modern fingerprint use started in 1892

Fingerprint analysis was in use well before the Leavenworth situation.

The earliest use of fingerprints as a form of identification dates back to the Qin Dynasty in China around 221 B.C, according to the Justice Department's Fingerprint Sourcebook, which describes itself as "the definitive guide to the science of fingerprint identification."

Fingerprints continued to be used throughout time across Europe and Asia to identify people and sign documents, according to the book's history chapter.

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The use of fingerprints as part of criminal investigations around the world also predates the West case at Leavenworth.

A murder case in Argentina in 1892 is considered the first homicide to be solved with the use of fingerprint evidence, according to the DOJ book. The country became the first to rely solely on fingerprints as a method of identification.

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West case didn't start practice of using fingerprints

The Facebook post says Will and William West are the reason fingerprints are now used to identify people, but historians say that's unlikely.

Fingerprinting did begin at Leavenworth shortly after the West incident, but that timing was likely coincidental.

In October 1904, two officials started fingerprinting all inmates at Leavenworth after seeing the demonstration of fingerprints at a 1904 exposition in St. Louis, according to research by Simon Cole, a professor of criminology at the University of California-Irvine. He said the case didn't become well known until 1918.

"I think the claim that Leavenworth officials noticed the West's fingerprints in 1904 was actually a myth concocted after the fact in 1918," said Cole, who published a book about the history of fingerprints in criminal identification.

Historian Daniel Asen agreed, saying fingerprinting had already been adopted in the U.S. in the first years of the 1900s.

Asen, whose research includes recent developments of fingerprinting in the U.S., told USA TODAY in an email the change to fingerprinting wasn't immediate across the country – the Bertillon method was kept in many places for another decade or two.

The first systematic use of fingerprints in the U.S. dates back to 1902 – a year before the West case. The New York Civil Service Commission started fingerprinting civil service applicants to "prevent importers from taking tests for otherwise unqualified people."

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A year later, in 1903, the first systematic use of fingerprinting for criminal records was developed in New York with the creation of the "American Classification System," which kept records of all criminals in the state.

The fingerprinting at Leavenworth in 1904 was the beginning of the U.S. government's fingerprint collection, the Justice Department's book says.

Our rating: Partly false

Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that two nearly identical male prisoners are the reason why fingerprints are used to identify people. The story of the two inmates is real, but the event didn't directly spur adoption of fingerprinting, according to historians. The technique had already been in use for decades around the world. And the use at Leavenworth specifically stemmed from a presentation at a fair, not this case.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Interpol, accessed Oct. 19, Fingerprints
  • FBI, accessed Oct. 19, The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-1938
  • National Archives, accessed Oct. 19, Name Index to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary Inma Case Files, 1895-1931
  • New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, accessed Oct. 19, The Bertillon System
  • Kenneth M. LaMaster, accessed Oct. 19, C-SPAN speaker profile
  • KCUR 89.3, Dec. 15, 2015, How Look-Alike Leavenworth Prisoners Led To The Forensic Use Of Fingerprinting
  • University of California, accessed Oct. 21, Simon A. Cole
  • Simon Cole, Oct. 21, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Harvard University Press, accessed Oct. 21, "Suspect Identities" by Simon Cole
  • Rutgers University, accessed Oct. 22, Daniel Asen
  • Daniel Asen, Oct. 22, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • National Institute of Justice, accessed Oct. 19, Fingerprint Sourcebook
  • Department of Justice, accessed Oct. 19, The Fingerprint Sourcebook
  • John Hopkins University Press, Fall 2007, Twins, Twain, Galton, and Gilman: Fingerprinting, Individualization, Brotherhood, and RAce in Pudd'nhead Wilson

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Claim linking widespread fingerprint use to nearly identical inmates misses mark

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usr: 1
This is interesting!