The Strange Case of Inmate Doppelgangers & Why the Government Adopted Fingerprinting

history of fingerprinting

It all began when Will West was brought into the Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas more than 100 years ago.

West arrived in 1903, and prison officials were baffled because they were certain they’d already processed him a couple of years earlier. Clerk M.W. McClaughry asked West if he’d ever been in prison before. He answered a definite “no.”

When McClaughry and his team did a little digging, they discovered that a man named William West was in fact admitted to Leavenworth in 1901 for murder. While both men shared similar names and looked identical, they were in fact completely different people.

Legend has it that McClaughry was so shaken by the developments that he called for their “Bertillon measurements.” This is a method named after French policeman Alphonse Bertillon used to identify people based on the dimensions of physical features.

history of fingerprinting

When Will West’s measurements were taken, the came back exactly the same as William West’s. In the meantime, Will West was shown the intake photo of William West and he went on record as saying, “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”

Fast forward to 1904, and the issue of identifying almost identical human beings was still on McClaughry’s mind. Everything changed when he met Scotland Yard’s Sgt. John K. Ferrier at the World Fair in St Louis while Ferrier was keeping watch over the Crown Jewels.

Ferrier told McClaughry that Scotland Yard adopted the use of fingerprinting and had been using it for a few years. Instantly, McClaughry was sold. He decided to employ the same technique at Leavenworth. Both Will and William West were officially fingerprinted in 1905.

Not long after, the United States created a national fingerprint repository.

This story has been long-held as the game-changer where fingerprinting is concerned, however there have been some who have tried to debunk the story. In 1987, Robert Olsen of Identification News tried to prove otherwise.

Whether the story is indeed a fable or not, both men did indeed exist and they shared the same measurements. Additionally, it can be proven that fingerprinting came about right after the arrest of Will West.