Village surgeon who pioneered fingerprints 50 years before they were used by police (but could the Yard have caught Jack the Ripper if they listened to his theory)
Letter written in 1840 detailed how to take impressions of fingerprints
Another 50 years before authorities used forensic evidence for identification
16:37 GMT, 9 December 2012
The notorious killer Jack the Ripper might have been caught if police had paid attention to a doctor's theory about using fingerprints to solve crimes, it emerged today.
But the authorities ignored the suggestion of the village surgeon and it was another 50 years before forensic evidence was used for identification purposes.
His three-page letter written in 1840 detailing how fingerprints could track down murderers is being auctioned at Sothebys this week.
Horror: A cartoon of the grisly discovery by police of one of Jack The Ripper's female victims
The note refers to the shocking killing on May 6, 1840, of 73-year-old politician Lord William Russell who was found in his bed with his throat cut at his Mayfair townhouse.
Ten days later, surgeon Robert Blake Overton, who lived in the Norfolk village of Grimstone, wrote to the victim's nephew, Lord John Russell – the future prime minister – who passed it onto Scotland Yard.
The letter: Surgeon Robert Blake Overton even used two inky fingerprints to illustrate his theory
In it, he referred to the marks of 'bloody fingers' found at the scene, adding: 'It is not generally known that every individual has a peculiar arrangement [on] the grain of the skin …
'I would strongly recommend the propriety
of obtaining impressions from the fingers of the suspected individual
and a comparison made with the marks on the sheets and pillows.'
Overton explained that “the impressions made from the fingers of different persons will produce different shapes.'
The doctor even included two pairs of inky fingerprints in his letter to illustrate his theory.
letter – among some 700 original documents relating to the murder
investigation and later trial are owned by the Law Society. The collection is expected to
Heaton, the auctioneer's manuscript specialist, told the Independent::
'If this idea had been taken up, the whole criminal history of the
Victorian period – of the foggy streets and of Sherlock Holmes and of
Jack the Ripper – would have looked very different.
'This obscure village surgeon was
suggesting the forensic use of fingerprint evidence a full 50 years
before the procedure was adopted.'
It wasn't until the late 1850s that William Hershel, a British officer, used fingerprints for identification on contracts in India.
And it was not until the 1890s that pioneering use was made of fingerprints in criminal investigations. Even Sherlock Holmes did not use fingerprints until 1903.
Clue: A fingerprint and caricature of Jack The Ripper the unidentified serial killer of vice girls in Whitechapel
Mr Heaton added: 'Perhaps even Jack the Ripper might have been caught. Instead, this letter was filed away and Overton himself disappears from the history of forensics.'
But fingerprint evidence would not have helped to solve Russell's murder. Scotland Yard took up Overton's suggestion but recorded on the back of the letter that, 'there were no such marks except those made by the Surgeons who first examined the wound.'
Russell's Swiss valet, Franois Benjamin Courvoisier, was later charged and confessed. His execution was attended by thousands,