A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification
Email this review


A critical look at the origins of criminal identification and the impact of changing technologies on the field.

Cole, who received his Ph.D. in science and technology studies from Cornell, cautions that the history of criminal identification reveals that forensic, archival, and diagnostic identification have always been intertwined as society has sought to identify the perpetrator of a crime, link the criminal to past activities, and prevent crime by discovering in the body the signs of potential criminal behavior. He examines the social and political forces that have driven the demand for a means of positive identification not just of criminals but of “suspect” others: immigrants, vagrants, people of color, and similarly marginalized groups. He first details (and includes some fascinating illustrations depicting) Alphonse Bertillon’s anthropometric identification system, developed in 19th-century France, which turned extensive body measurements into an accessible and transmittable code. Then Cole chronicles the rise of a rival system: fingerprinting, which had its beginnings during Britain’s administration of colonial India. (For a close-up and personal look at the development of fingerprinting in England, see Colin Beavan, above.) Next, he shows fingerprinting becoming the accepted method in the US; fingerprint examiners gained authority as uncontested experts in interpreting fingerprint evidence, and the states, the FBI, and Interpol developed large fingerprint databases. Fingerprint identification having achieved what Cole calls “an imposing veneer of scientific and legal authority,” it now may find its credibility about to crumble, he asserts, citing examples of fraud, fabrication, and false positives. Its replacement? The new technology of DNA typing, which poses its own risks according to Cole, who warns that its reliability in forensic and archival identification may lead to misplaced confidence in its diagnostic capabilities. He strongly urges skepticism about DNA typing as a way to find the much-sought-after biological explanation for criminal behavior.

Like all good history, this thoroughly researched and documented account offers lessons for today. (Ten line drawings and ten halftones)

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-674-00455-8
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2001


NonfictionCONVICTING AVERY by Michael D. Cicchini
by Michael D. Cicchini
NonfictionTHE SKELETON CREW by Deborah Halber
by Deborah Halber
NonfictionINSIDE THE CELL by Erin E. Murphy
by Erin E. Murphy