Mystery Scene MISCELLANY
Mystery Scene|Fall #169, 2021
FIRST USE OF FINGERPRINTS
Louis Phillips

For centuries, it was an Asian custom to “sign” important documents by sealing the paper with a fingerprint. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that several researchers, almost simultaneously, thought of using these unique markings as a means of criminal identification. In 1896, Argentina’s police agency was the first to adopt fingerprinting as a means of identifying criminals.

The first use of fingerprints in literature is in Mark Twain’s memoir Life on the Mississippi (1883), notable mainly for its account of the author’s time on the river, but which also recounts parts of his later life and includes tall tales and stories allegedly told to him. Among these is an involved, melodramatic account of a murder in which the killer is identified by a thumbprint.

Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, published in 1893, includes a courtroom drama that turns on fingerprint identification, one of the first uses of the technology in a novel.

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