Indelible Mark of Guilt

By Walton Golightly

Thomas Farrow ran a chandler’s shop not far from the Thames in Deptford, southeast London. Early on the morning of March 27, 1905, he and his wife Anne were found in the shop. Both had been bludgeoned and had serious head injuries. Farrow was dead; Anne was rushed to hospital, where she died four days later without regaining consciousness. The shop had been ransacked and money had been taken from the cash box. A milkman told police he had seen two men lurking around the shop. Back then, the science of fingerprinting was in its infancy. In 1823, Jan Purkyně, a professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published a thesis discussing fingerprint patterns, but did not mention the possibility of using fingerprints to identify people. In 1863, Paul-Jean Coulier, a professor for chemistry at a military hospital in Paris, discovered that iodine fumes can reveal hidden or latent fingerprints on paper (latent prints are those that are clearly visible). In India, in the 1870s, Sir William James Herschel registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. A short while later, Dr Henry Faulds published a paper in the scientific journal Nature, discussing the usefulness of fingerprints for identification and proposing a method to record them with printing ink.

In 1886, he offered his system to the Metropolitan Police in London but it was dismissed at the time. Instead, it was Argentine police officer Juan Vucetich who, in 1880, created the first method of recording the fingerprints of individuals on file and set up the world’s first fingerprint bureau. When the Farrows were murdered, Scotland Yard’s fingerprint bureau had only been in operation for four years. And a fingerprint was lifted from a glass ashtray at the scene. It was found not to belong to the Farrows or the police officer who had admitted handling it. Two black silk masks were also found. Bizarrely, they had been made from Anne Farrow’s stockings! This led investigators to assume the Farrows had known their assailants. A trawl of local criminals threw up a pair of brothers, Alfred, 22, and Albert,20, Stratton. Under police questioning, Alfred’s mistress Hannah Cromarty said she had been with Alfred on the night before the murder. Someone knocked on the door in the early hours and Alfred had left after telling Hannah to say he had been with her until 09h00. She also said Alfred had burnt a coat during the week and dyed his brown shoes black. On April 2, Alfred Stratton was arrested and Commissioner of Police Melville McNaughten ordered him to be fingerprinted. Alfred’s thumbprint was found to contain 11 matching points with the print found on the ashtray. His brother was arrested a short while later.
The fingerprint evidence was regarded as crucial, but the brothers’ barrister HG Booth dismissed it as ‘nonsense’. Prosecutor Sir Richard Muir responded by having the members of the jury fingerprinted. He was then able to show that although there were minor discrepancies, each fingerprint had a basic pattern of whorls and loops that was unique. The judge remained sceptical that there could be no two people with matching prints. In his summation for the jury he said only that there was ‘an extraordinary amount of resemblance between the two marks’, and it was merely ‘to a certain extent corroborative evidence in regard to Alfred Stratton’. Nonetheless, the jury found both brothers guilty. Each then proceeded to blame the other for the murder. Both were hanged on May 23, 1905.

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