The development of modern crime-fighting parallels the evolution of fingerprinting as a means of identifying and keeping track of criminals. Before the police began to routinely fingerprint arrestees and send their prints to a central clearinghouse where the sets were filed according to a fingerprint classification system, there was no way to determine the identities and criminal histories of the people they had in custody. This allowed an army of burglars, con men, and killers (who used aliases when arrested or questioned) to roam the country as wanted but unidentified and often dangerous criminals.
August Vollmer, one of America's early fingerprint pioneers, began his law enforcement career in 1905 when, as a young man, he was elected town marshal of Berkeley, California. At the turn-of the century, most police departments in Europe were identifying criminals by taking and recording eleven different body measurements. This procedure, devised by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon who called it Anthropometry, would eventually give way to fingerprinting. Although popular in Europe, only a handful of American police departments were using Bertillonage, as it was called, when Vollmer took office.
August Vollmer would become one of America's most prominent and progressive police administrators. In 1906, he established, with the help of C.D. Lee, a system of criminal investigation based on Bertillonage within the Berkeley Police Department. Two years later, he would add fingerprints to his tiny identification bureau.1 In 1922, as president of the International Association of Chief's of Police (IACP) and the man who had been responsible for the state-wide fingerprint identification bureau operating in California, Vollmer was the force behind the 1924 establishment of the FBI’s national fingerprint bureau.
But in Berkeley, California in 1905, as in most of America, the identification of criminals was a hit and miss proposition. A few months after taking office, Vollmer and his men were confronted with a situation that illustrates the state of affairs in law enforcement prior to the universal adoption of anthropometry and fingerprints. This event would make Vollmer appreciate the value of scientific criminal identification and would prompt him to adopt Bertillonage. The case would also make him America’s most influential and persistent spokesman for scientific crime detection.
It all started late one night in September, 1905 when Jack LeStrange, one of Vollmer's four deputies, was patrolling downtown Berkeley on his bicycle. LeStrange spotted two men loitering on the corner of Ninth Street and University Avenue. The two men disappeared around a corner, then as LeStrange peddled closer, he caught sight of them again, but this time they were accompanied by two other men. The four strangers looked suspicious, and they were meandering in the vicinity of the West Berkeley Bank.
When LeStrange rode up to the men, one of them asked him how often the streetcars ran that time of night. LeStrange responded to the question, then watched as the four men walked away from him in the direction of a nearby barn. The men disappeared into the shadows a few minutes later.
It was all very suspicious. LeStrange didn't recognize any of the men, but he was certain they were up to no good. He thought about calling Vollmer for assistance, but there were no telephones nearby (Berkeley's call-boxes weren’t installed until 1910). Alone, and not sure of what he was getting into, LeStrange cautiously approached the old barn. Le Strange was tiptoeing alongside the structure when one of the men popped out of the darkness with a gun.
“This is how we handle hick cops,” the gunman said. LeStrange raised his arms as though he were putting them above his head. As he did so, he managed to get a hand on the stranger's pistol. During the brief struggle, LeStrange got to his own weapon and shot the man through the neck. When the assailant dropped to the ground, his companions opened fire on the deputy. After a brief exchange, the shooting abruptly stopped as the three men slipped back into the darkness. LeStrange cautiously searched the area around the barn but the men had escaped.
That night Vollmer organized a manhunt, but the men were gone. They had fled to Oakland then caught a ferry to San Francisco. The man who had pulled the gun on LeStrange was dead. The bullet had severed his windpipe and spinal cord. Now the big question was, who had deputy LeStrange killed? Where did the man come from? Was he a fugitive? If so, was he a notorious criminal or some petty thief?
Vollmer looked through the dead man's clothing for something that might identify him by name. There was nothing like that to be found, but Vollmer did come across evidence that the man was a burglar. In his pockets were the kind of drill bits burglars used to make small holes into the doors of safes. Vollmer also found a syringe. It was obvious that this burglar used explosives to blast open safe doors. The syringe was used to inject the nitroglycerine into the little holes made by the drill bits. In those days burglars made their own nitroglycerine by either mixing the three ingredients themselves or boiling the substance out of dynamite. The drill and the nitroglycerine must have been in the possession of the dead man's accomplices.
LeStrange was a least relieved to know that the man he had shot was a burglar, and that he had been correct in his suspicion that the strangers were in Berkeley to hit a bank. But the dead man's identity was still unknown.
None of the police officers from the surrounding towns and cities who viewed the corpse recognized it. Vollmer rummaged through his modest collection of wanted circulars without finding anything that matched up to the dead burglar. The next step involved putting the corpse on public display at the city morgue in the hope that someone would come by and identify it. No one did.
There was only one avenue left for Vollmer, and that was to send a photograph of the man to the Pinkerton Agency in Chicago. Two weeks later, William Pinkerton wrote Vollmer a letter advising him that officer LeStrange had killed one Matthew Kennedy, alias, James Kelly and Kid McMunn. The Pinkerton’s had been after Kennedy in connection with several Chicago bank burglaries.
Pinkerton had also recalled that Matthew Kennedy was known to the Cleveland Police Department, so he sent Vollmer's photograph to Captain Hohne who corroborated the identification and provided additional information regarding Kennedy's background. Captain Hohne had almost been killed himself in a shoot-out with Kennedy and his gang.
1. The first American police department to set up a fingerprint bureau was St. Louis in 1904. The method of classification was based on the English system devised by Sir Edward Richard Henry in 1901, the year Scotland Yard set up their bureau. The first American fingerprint textbook came out in 1910.