by ZJ Czupor

Fingerprinting in Fiction

Picture Dawson’s Landing, a fictional Missouri frontier town, on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century.

It’s the setting for Mark Twain’s 1894 satiric crime novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, which revolves around two boys—one born into slavery (with 1/32 black ancestry); the other white. The boys, who look similar, are switched in their cribs and each grows into the other’s social role. The white boy grows up to be David Wilson, a young lawyer, who moves to town and makes a clever remark which is misunderstood. That causes locals to brand him a “pudd’nhead” or nitwit. A murder occurs, and Wilson solves the mystery in a courtroom scene where he announces the real murderer using fingerprints.

In American fiction, Samuel Langhome Clemens, (Mark Twain 1835-1910), was the first to introduce fingerprinting into fiction. In his memoir, Life on the Mississippi (1833), he wrote a chapter entitled, “A Thumb Print and What Came of it.” Twain claims to have gotten the idea from an old French prison keeper who told him there was one thing about a person which never changed from cradle to grave—the lines on the ball of the thumb—and they were never exactly alike in the thumbs of any two human beings. From that notion grew Pudd’nhead Wilson, a detective story based upon identification of fingerprints.

Scotland Yard’s first case, other than murder, based on fingerprint evidence, was one of burglary in June 1902. The accused had left an impression of his left thumb on a newly painted windowsill.

In the same year in France, the Henri Scheffer case is the first instance where fingerprints led to the arrest and conviction of a murderer. Scheffer, the murderer, had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed months before. His prints were found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead.

In 1903, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote a short story, The Norwood Builder, featuring his celebrated sleuth Sherlock Holmes in which the discovery of a bloody fingerprint helps him expose the real criminal and free his client.

The British detective writer R. Austin Freeman (1862-1943) wrote a series of medical-legal detective novels featuring Dr. John Thorndyke. His first Thorndyke novel, The Red Thumb Mark (1907), features a bloody fingerprint left on a piece of paper together with a parcel of diamonds inside a safe box. Dr. Thorndyke investigates and defends the accused whose fingerprint matches that on the paper, but after the diamonds had been stolen.

As an aside, literary critics didn’t think The Red Thumb Mark was Freeman’s best work. But his 1912 novel, The Singing Bone, is considered the first “inverted detective story” and had a significant influence on novels written during the “Golden Age” of detective fiction (1920-1945).

The inverted detective story, also known as a “howcatchem”, is a murder mystery structured so that the crime is described at the beginning and usually identifies the perpetrator. The story then describes the detective’s attempt to solve the mystery. There may also be detoured puzzles, such as why the crime was committed and they are explained or resolved during the story. This format is the opposite of the more typical “whodunit“, where all of the details of the perpetrator of the crime are not revealed until the story’s climax.

Human fingerprints are unique, hard to alter, and stay with us over our lifetimes—making them long-term markers of our identities. Even identical twins have different prints. Police and other authorities use fingerprints to identify criminals, or to identify incapacitated or deceased individuals.

Since 1924, the FBI has managed a database which contains an estimated 51 million criminal fingerprints and more than 1.5 million non-criminal fingerprint records. US Visit, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection management system, has a repository of more than 50 million non-US citizen fingerprints.

Louise Harnby is an editor who writes an excellent blog, “Fingerprint forensics for beginner crime-fiction writers,” in which she offers tips to help you get the science right when it comes to using fingerprints in fiction, as well as a list of valuable resources. By the way, our member author Jeff Carson, highly recommends her. You can find her blog here:

And that’s your Mystery Minute.