Character isn't something you were born with and can't change, like your fingerprints.
December 23, 2008 5:05 PM   Subscribe

Mark Twain was the first to talk about using fingerprinting in criminal cases. His 'Life on the Mississippi', published in 1883, contains a collection of essays and short stories. One such story concerns a man who had attempted to catch the killers of his wife and child by using fingerprint evidence. Mark Twain was evidently greatly interested in the subject. He had made a study of finger and hand marks. Fingerprinting wasn't commonly used to identify criminals in the U.S. until around 1903.
posted by flipyourwig (16 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Mark Twain was also one of the first to switch to a typewriter. And he invented (or maybe just invested in) a mechanical typesetter. He was Mr Cutting Edge, back in the day.
posted by DU at 5:44 PM on December 23, 2008

He did invest in a mechanical typesetter, but it wasn't successful.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:51 PM on December 23, 2008

Twain did invent one thing - an IMPROVEMENT IN ADJUSTABLE AND DETACHABLE STRAPS FOR GARMENTS (patented under his real name).
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:56 PM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mark Twain was, without doubt, an icon of this country......
posted by HuronBob at 5:57 PM on December 23, 2008

s/Cutting Edge/Bleeding Edge/
posted by DU at 6:00 PM on December 23, 2008

Fingerprints are a key plot device in Twain's underrated masterpiece, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins.
posted by LarryC at 6:15 PM on December 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Um, that last link is pretty creepy. From the description of their GenetiKid™ DNA Isolation Membrane (no, really):

A revolutionary second-generation child identification kit that uses DNA Isolation Technology to preserve a complete, forensic-quality DNA record of a child. Great for recording a child's critical genetic "fingerprint" and promoting your organization in the process.

That's right, not only can you order Child Fingerprinting Kits and Child DNA Isolation Membranes, you can even get them with your law enforcement organization or corporation's logo on the packaging! After all, what could possibly be bad about having your innocent children's fingerprints and DNA samples on file with the law enforcement organization of your choice? Don't you know there are reds pedophiles under the bed? It's not a trope of dystopian future sci-fi when you do it voluntarily! Seriously, pedophiles!

The idea that a product like this could be marketable just squicks me out. I knew Security Moms were fucked up and the Pedophile Menace has caused a lot of irrationality among gullible types, but this is a new low.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:39 PM on December 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

this is a new low

I hate to be the one to tell you, but they've been promoting child ident/tracking kits at schools for at least a decade and probably longer.
posted by DU at 6:53 PM on December 23, 2008


Though there were earlier studies at using fingerprints for identification, I don't think it was written in any books. Certainly this was before Sir Francis Galton suggested the use of fingerprints to Scotland Yard.

For various weird reasons I knew some of this history, but not of Mark Twain's early interest! I wonder if anyone reading his book tried it out in any actual criminal cases (before anyone else in the world)?
posted by eye of newt at 7:11 PM on December 23, 2008

Fingerprints are an interesting result of the determinism of DNA and the variability of the amniotic environment. For most people, fingerprint textures represent a purely biological process. But sometimes such textures occur inorganically, as I discovered:

An Experimentally Produced Desiccation Ridge That Mimics an Arch.
posted by Tube at 7:22 PM on December 23, 2008

Fingerprinting and false positives.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:59 PM on December 23, 2008

The reliability of forensic evidence has consistently been overstated. In fact, after a century of use, fingerprinting has never been scientifically validated. "Contrary to what is generally thought, there is little scientific basis for assuming that any two supposedly identical fingerprints unequivocally come from the same person." If fingerprinting had to meet the standards required of DNA evidence, fingerprint evidence would not be admissible in court. And don't get me started on "lie detectors."
posted by sdodd at 8:05 PM on December 23, 2008

I've found How to fake fingerprints to be an invaluable reference, along with some information I found somewhere about how to dispose of a corpse.

Did I really say that or was I just thinking that?
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:13 PM on December 23, 2008

I like all things Twain
posted by nola at 8:56 PM on December 23, 2008

I was just read most of that book last weekend but I missed that story.

I liked the part where the riverboat blew up and people where trapped under the burning decks and the Captain collected all the pieces of his chess set before deciding what to do next.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:55 AM on December 24, 2008

William James Herschel (grandson of the astronomer) began using prints for identification purposes in India in 1877. His book on the subject was p[rinted in 1880. There was also a Japanese connection when Henry Fauls, a collector of Asian ceramics, discovered that the fingerprints of potters could often be discovered and used to identify pieces. More here. The idea seems to have been around for millenia but achieved critical mass only at the end of the 19th C.
posted by CCBC at 6:00 PM on December 24, 2008

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