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A national Gallup Poll on voluntary fingerprinting was conducted in 1937, and the question was: Do you think everybody in the country should be fingerprinted by the federal government? Seventy-one percent answered yes.8 Two years later, the Secretary of War announced that the fingerprints of the seventy thousand employees of the War Department would be taken and filed with the FBI.9 About this time, motor vehicle commissioners in fourteen states said they favored fingerprinting every licensed automobile operator. Commissioners in nine states, however, voiced opposition to the idea on the grounds it would seriously inconvenience drivers.10

Although voluntary fingerprinting lost considerable steam after 1939, Vollmer and Hoover remained staunch advocates of the idea. In January of 1940 Hoover reported to the House Appropriations Committee that many industrial employees were being fingerprinted by their employers who were able to find out which ones were criminal or subversive.

In October, 1941, in response to a letter he'd received about voluntary fingerprinting, Vollmer wrote:

Any person living in this country may have an infallible record of his identity placed in the civilian file of the National Bureau of Investigation. (sic) All that is necessary for the resident to do is to go to the Police Station or Sheriff's Office in the community in which he resides and tell the official in charge that he wants his fingerprints taken for the Washington Bureau.

If every person in the United States did take time out of their busy life to do this it would prevent over forty thousand individuals from being buried as unidentified dead every year. It would also aid the officials in their search for the more than two hundred thousand persons who are annually reported missing. Moreover, nearly a million sick or injured persons are picked up on our highways every year, many of these are unconscious and are without any distinctive mark or identification. This causes needless suffering to the friends and relatives. 11

The Newark, New Jersey Junior Chamber of Commerce, in 1941, sponsored a “Civil Identification Week” in which members of the club set up booths around the city where police fingerprint men registered willing citizens. Two years later, in a letter to V.A. Leonard, a former Berkley police officer who had become a writer and criminal justice professor, Vollmer reported that Maine had passed a law requiring all school children to be fingerprinted. Vollmer wrote: “This is the beginning of universal fingerprinting by legislative enactment.”12 Vollmer was wrong, and before he died in 1955, he realized that the American people had lost their taste for voluntary fingerprinting, and were in no mood for mandatory registration. By then, Vollmer himself seemed to have lost much of his enthusiasm for the idea.

Voluntary fingerprinting was a fad created by the fear of crime and unrealistic expectations of fingerprints as a crime-fighting tool. Every so often, as in the mid-1980's when Americans were led to believe that their children were in unprecedented danger of being snatched by strangers, the idea of voluntary fingerprinting gains some support. But universal fingerprinting will never find a home in this country. It's an American tradition to distrust government, and although we have very little privacy left, the urge to protect what we have is emotional and still very strong.

8. Police Chief Magazine, (May, 1937).
9. Police Chief Magazine, (April, 1939).
10. Police Chief Magazine, (May, 1937).
11. August Vollmer to Natoma Francisco, October 22, 1941. Vollmer papers Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkley.
12. August Vollmer to V.A. Leonard, January 15, 1943. Bancroft Library.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com