It’s what you’ve always suspected: that thing, that no two fingerprints are alike, it isn’t true. I can’t vouch for the snowflake corollary, but let’s go out on a limb and say that isn’t true either. Brings up an interesting question, though, right? Where’d we get those fingerprints in the first place? Funny we should ask.
Recall, if you will, your second-grade criminology lab. The one where you went around swabbing cheeks, making balsa-wood mockups of the scene, presenting your samples in an egg carton, fingering the foreign kid for the drop—Tuan usually, or at least a minority. Of course, yes, the case of Will West was the lesson there, and fingerprints the victor.
Will West was arrested in 1903 for a crime he said he didn’t commit. I love that, when they claim innocence. But someone identified him as the perp, and when he was at the gates of Leavenworth they did a full forensic workup, measuring his ear, foot, head, and nose shapes—it was called “Bertillonage,” and it was the way to identify criminals—and they said, “Oh yeah, it’s Will West. Matches perfectly. We’ve already got him on record.” That was the whole point of Bertillon’s ID system: you get the measurements and file them and then you can track criminal records. It was dead-on certain, a perfect way to ID a guy.
Except. The Leavenworth guard—hunkered down spreading West’s toes with calipers—checked his list twice: “Boss, uh, says here Will West is already in prison!” A silent pause passed between the two men, silence overfilled with dismay. No, that’s dumb. There wasn’t dismay. Just silence. But then boss man ripped the sheet from the guard’s hand and screamed, “Damn it, McDermott!! Whaddya mean! Then who is this guy?!”
“Sir, there must be two Will Wests!”
And there were, these two guys who looked pretty damn identical.
“Our sure-fire ID technique is insufficient! It can’t differentiate! We need something better! Exclamations! What’ll we do?!”
The portly boss said nothing; instead, he scratched his Irish beard while daydreaming of cracking skulls with his weatherworn nightstick, so fustigated was he. Out of the shadows stepped a dashing, pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing, early-century David Caruso: “One word, gentleman. Are you listening? Well, one compound word: fingerprints.”
They thus promptly inked the two Will Wests’ fingers and, huzzah, the patterns differed. Right there, that very day, the warden tells us, fingerprints came in as the new sure-fire technique for unique scientific identification.
Talk about progress. Because, time was, our French friend Bertillon seriously had the best thing going. I wasn’t kidding. His system used 16 different ear-shape descriptors, a range of head-pointiness statistics, six ways to define a beard, and other peculiar bodily measurements. Foot length, foot width, foot depth, foot angle, toe spread, toe length, toe-jam capacity … fine, you get it. It was a complete anthropometric package. Yet it only worked for so long, because eventually—shocker—beard gruffness wasn’t that good at predicting criminal behavior or at making perfect, one-to-one matches when your suspect was in custody. And maybe, just maybe, two different Will Wests could have similar toe configurations. We needed something better: fingerprints stepped up to the plate, real rational like. And they lasted a while in the top spot till “DNA fingerprints” took over, back in the quaint ’80s.
So we go from criminology prehistory to Bertillon’s anthropometrics to fingerprints to DNA, each time as confident as the last. Fact is, you get yourself a good theory, work with it for a long while, and then just let it float. Plus, with an average urban sample population, these methods still mostly work anyhow. You don’t need Court TV, with their fingerprint logo no less, to vouch for that. As this one guy, Cole, said, by sheer “dint of analogy, lack of contradiction and relentless repetition,” these bits of folk wisdom become “deeply enshrined.” We get a real aura of infallibility.
Speaking of fallibility, I should say, too: Your second-grade teacher’s Will West story? The Leavenworth warden made that up like 15 years after the fact. I mean, maybe the two Will Wests were legit, but he didn’t switch on a dime to fingerprints right then. Else, how come he’d not even learned of them until 1904, the year after?
Anyhow. The network sent me next season’s pilot for Coast Guard CSI: Norfolk, asking for notes, and oh, I gave them notes. But I never heard back. Surely they didn’t want to hear that forensic certainty is an artifact of the present. Give us some time and we’ll again call it progress that we realized we didn’t know so much as we thought we knew. Just a hunch. Plus, I think a maturing Soleil Moon Frye, even with her plausible escape from the typecast of Punky Brewster, is simply miscast. It’s not time yet.