Changing of Fingerprints

(This historical article is reprinted from the Forensic Medicine section of the Oct/Dec 1934 issue of The American Journal of Surgery, vol. XXVI, pp 533--534.)

Hollywood, California

Some forty years ago Mark Twain in writing his famous book entitled, �Pudd'n head Wilson,� had Lawyer Wilson in his final address to the jury say:

Every human being carries with him from his cradle to his grave, certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified--�and that without shade of doubt or question.  These marks are his signature, his physiological autograph, so to speak, and this autograph cannot be counterfeited, nor can he disguise it or hide it away, nor can it become illegible by the wear and mutations of time.

This autograph consists of the delicate lines or corrugations with which Nature marks the insides of the hands and the soles of the feet.  These dainty curving lines lie close together, like those that indicate the borders of oceans in maps, and they form various clearly defined patterns, such as arches, circles, long curves, whorls, etc., and these patterns differ on the different fingers.

Mark Twain did not claim this as an original discovery, but his book brought the idea to the public so that this has been an accepted theory, fostered by many scientific works and proved by millions of fingerprint records.

In Chicago in 1933 the �Handsome Jack Klutas� case raised a new question of the possibility of changing finger prints and facial contours so as to defeat the aims of justice by making identification difficult.

While the public believes in the possibilities of miracles performed by plastic surgery, certain essential points must be made clear before further discussion.

Skin grafts taken from one person and transplanted to another or taken from animals and transferred to humans are so seldom successful that they may be eliminated from consideration.  Where the very rare case has been successful at first, ultimately the graft was replaced by scar tissue.  Ordinary skin taken from other parts of the body, with the exception of the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, does not contain the characteristic ridges and will not develop them on transplantation.

If we can change one fingerprint we have changed the fingerprint classification.  Certain areas of the palm and the sole contain such characteristic ridges as are found on the finger tips but not of the same grouping.

A recent inquiry from the California Bureau of Identification regarding the possibilities of changing finger prints prompts the mentioning of a case:

The patient, a man, has been under my care for the past two years for reconstruction of his burned hands.  The distal phalanx of the right forefinger was markedly flattened and the finger contracted.  To build up the flattened end and make a new touch pad I decided to place a skin graft from the palm in addition to releasing the scar tissue causing the contraction.  An area on the palm was selected for its skin ridge markings similarity and in order to better demonstrate the result the skin was turned around.

As far as I know this is the first reported and authenticated instance of change of finger prints by surgery.  The ridges do not appear completely for several months after transplantation and one should not be misled on seeing an early graft.

If only plain impression prints are made the scars if present will not show.  A complete roll print however will show the incision lines in certain cases, especially if recently made.  The fact that the ordinary latent print is a plain impression print, makes this of special interest.

It would be possible to repeat the change, especially if it were a case of covering or eliminating old prints on file.  The simplest way would be to remove the skin and graft from some other part of the body, as many finger tips in manual labor types, show no ridges.

Detection of such a subterfuge would entail the recognition of scars on the finger.  If ridges were present in the suspected grafted area, inspection of the palms and soles with the tell--tale scars would be sufficient evidence.  If no ridges are present on the suspected fingers, the entire body, usually the thighs, would furnish evidence of areas having supplied the graft tissue.

If fingerprint classification is not to mean identification we must realize that the criminal who is smart enough to have his fingerprints altered is going to have other surgical aid.  Plastic surgery is being utilized to defeat justice by changing facial contours, removing scars, etc.

When we have a national act requiring universal identification measures we must have not only fingerprints, but prints of the palms and soles as well.  Added to this must be an up--to--date understanding of plastic surgery possibilities.

(Editor--�This occasionally referenced article [i.e. Ashbaugh's  Ridgeology] claims to the first account of successfully changing someone's fingerprints.  It also points out a method to detect such subterfuge.  
   Efforts to obliterate or mutilate one's fingerprints are documented elsewhere  from such well known cases as John Dillinger in 1934 and Roscoe Pitts about 1943.  Pitts had successfully obliterated his prints by the grafting of non--friction skin onto his finger--tips.  However, he was still easily identified by friction skin on the second joints of his fingers.  See Moenssens' Fingerprint Techniques for further discussion of these two notorious cases.)




This article was reprinted in �THE PRINT�
Volume 12(6), November/December 1996, pp 13-14
and has been obtained from the online library provided by the

Southern California Association of Fingerprint Officers