How Were People Identified Before Fingerprints?

Before the advent of fingerprints as a method of identification, law enforcement agencies had to rely on other means to identify individuals.

In this article, we will explore the various methods that were used to identify people before fingerprints became a widely accepted form of identification.

How Were People Identified Before Fingerprints?

Fingerprint identification emerged as an important system within police agencies in the late 19th century. However, What was used before fingerprints to identify someone? Let’s dive in!

1. Physical Description

One of the earliest methods used to identify criminals was through physical description. Law enforcement would take detailed notes about a suspect’s physical appearance, including height, weight, hair color, eye color, and any distinguishing features such as scars or tattoos. This information would be recorded and used to help identify individuals involved in criminal activities.

2. Photography

As photography became more accessible in the late 19th century, it was used as a method of identification. Criminals would have their photographs taken and these photographs would be kept in a record for future reference. However, this method had its limitations as it relied on the criminal still being at large for the identification process to be effective.

3. Bertillonage

Alphonse Bertillon, a French police officer, developed a method of identification known as Bertillonage. This method involved taking precise measurements of various body parts, such as the length of the arm, the width of the head, and the distance between certain features on the face. These measurements were recorded and used to create a unique identification system for each individual. Although Bertillonage was widely used for a time, it eventually fell out of favor due to its limitations and the introduction of more reliable methods of identification.

The Rise of Fingerprinting as a Method of Identification

Introduction of Fingerprinting

The use of fingerprints to identify criminals can be traced back to the late 19th century. Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist, was one of the first to recognize the unique nature of fingerprints and their potential use in identification. He conducted extensive research and published a book called “Fingerprints” in 1892, which laid the foundation for the scientific study of fingerprints.

Who is the father of fingerprint identification?

Sir Francis Galton is often referred to as the father of fingerprint identification due to his pioneering work in the field.

Adoption by Law Enforcement

Although fingerprints were recognized as a potentially valuable method of identification, it took some time for them to be adopted by law enforcement agencies. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that fingerprinting became a widely accepted tool for identifying criminals. This was partly due to improvements in fingerprinting techniques and the development of a standardized classification system.

When did fingerprints become a tool for identifying criminals?

Fingerprints became a tool for identifying criminals in the early 20th century, after the development of standardized classification systems and improvements in fingerprinting techniques.

Advantages of Fingerprinting

Fingerprinting quickly gained popularity as a method of identification due to its many advantages. Unlike physical descriptions or photographs, fingerprints are unique to each individual and cannot be easily altered or changed. They provide a reliable and permanent record of a person’s identity, making it easier for law enforcement agencies to identify and apprehend criminals.


In conclusion, before the widespread use of fingerprints as a method of identification, law enforcement agencies had to rely on physical descriptions, photography, and the Bertillonage system.

However, with the introduction of fingerprinting, a more accurate and reliable method of identifying criminals was established. Today, fingerprints are widely recognized and used as a crucial tool in the fight against crime.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How were people identified before fingerprints?

A: Before fingerprints, people were identified using a method called anthropometry, also known as bertillon measurements. This method involved taking detailed measurements of various body parts, such as the head and face, to create a unique profile for each individual. This was essentially the only way to identify a suspect or a prisoner until the use of fingerprints became widespread.

Q: When were fingerprints first used for identification?

A: Fingerprints were first used for identification purposes in the year 1903. Before that, the method of criminal identification primarily relied on anthropometry.

Q: Who was William West?

A: William West was a prisoner at Leavenworth who became famous for a particular incident involving fingerprints. He was already serving a sentence when another man named William West arrived at the prison. The prison authorities realized that both men shared the same bertillon measurements, but their fingerprints were different. This case brought attention to the fact that anthropometry alone was not sufficient for accurate identification.

Q: What is the significance of fingerprints in criminal identification?

A: Fingerprints are unique to each individual, and they are one of the most reliable pieces of evidence to determine a person’s identity. Unlike anthropometric measurements, fingerprints cannot be easily altered or faked. This makes them highly valuable in criminal investigations and court proceedings.

Q: How are fingerprints used in criminal identification?

A: Fingerprints are primarily used to link a suspect to a crime scene. When a fingerprint is found at the scene, it can be compared to a database of known fingerprints. If a match is found, it provides strong evidence that the individual was present at the scene. Fingerprints can also be used to exclude innocent individuals from suspicion.

Q: Are fingerprints the only method of identification used today?

A: No, fingerprints are not the only method of identification used today. While fingerprints play a crucial role, other biometric methods such as DNA analysis and facial recognition are also used in conjunction with fingerprints to strengthen the identification process.

Q: How did the use of fingerprints become widespread?

A: The use of fingerprints became widespread due to their undeniable accuracy and reliability. Once the benefits of using fingerprints for identification were recognized, law enforcement agencies around the world started adopting fingerprinting techniques and building databases of fingerprints.

Q: What happened to anthropometry?

A: Anthropometry gradually fell out of favor as fingerprinting gained popularity. The limitations and potential for errors in anthropometric measurements became more apparent, and the accuracy and ease of using fingerprints for identification made anthropometry obsolete.

Q: Can fingerprints alone lead to a conviction?

A: Fingerprints alone may not be sufficient to lead to a conviction. While a fingerprint found at a crime scene can establish that the individual was present, additional evidence is usually required to prove their involvement in the crime.

Q: Who is considered the world’s first fingerprint expert?

A: Juan Vucetich, an Argentine police official, is often considered the world’s first fingerprint expert. He was instrumental in developing the classification system for fingerprints and used fingerprints as evidence in the conviction of Francisca Rojas in 1892.

Leave a Comment