The First Criminal Conviction Based on Fingerprint Evidence: Argentina, 1892.
On June 19, 1892, in Necochea, a small town on the Argentinian coast, a 26-year-old woman named Francesca Rojas ran out of her hut screaming "He killed my children!" Inside the hut, her children, boys aged 4 and 6, were found in their bed with their heads smashed in. Rojas, her neck bleeding from a wound, accused a man named Pedro Velasquez of murdering her children because she refused to marry him. She claimed that when she had returned home from work, he had been inside her hut, had pushed past her as he came running out, and she had found her children dead with their heads crushed.
Juan Vucetich (1858-1925) moved to Argentina in 1884 from his native Croatia and eventually found employment in the Statistical Bureau of the La Plata (part of the Buenos Aires province) police department. The Bertillon criminal identification system was currently in vogue and Vucetich studied the methods of taking measurements, but while doing so, became fascinated with the developing field of fingerprint classification.
Vucetich focused primarily on Francis Galton's fingerprint research but he quickly decided to extend Galton's "single finger" method to include all 10 fingers, as well as ingeniously creating a sophisticated and near-fool-proof system of categorizing fingerprint patterns. While his talents where formidable in the field of fingerprint classification, the same perhaps cannot be said for his talents in nomenclature, exemplified in his choice of names for his system: Icnofalangometrico.
Velasquez, the man accused by Rojas of murdering her children, was endlessly questioned by the police, and, by some accounts, tortured in order to extract a confession. Some reports even describe how Velasquez was locked overnight in a room with the murdered children, but he continuously maintained his innocence. A police inspector, Edward Alvarez, was sent from nearby La Plata to investigate the murders. Alvarez had taken an interest in Vucetich's fingerprinting efforts and appreciated the potential utility of the identification system. Once in Necochea, he learned that Velasquez had a credible alibi regarding his whereabouts at the time of the murders. He also learned that Rojas was in love with another man who refused to marry her because of her children. Alvarez focused his attention squarely on Rojas.
With thousands of Argentinians fingerprinted and a working identification system in place, Vucetich officially abandoned the Bertillon measurement system. He wrote the first of three fingerprint instructional manuals, all paid for out of his own pocket, making his case for the superiority of fingerprinting over bertillonage (the colloquial term for Bertillon's system).
Alvarez searched for hours in the hut where Francesca Rojas' children were killed and finally found the imprint of a thumb, made in blood, on the door of the room where the children had slept. He obtained a saw and cut out the section of the door, then had Rojas brought to the police station where he had her thumb inked and pressed onto some paper. Using a magnifying glass, Alvarez compared her print to the bloody print on the door section and, despite his minimal experience working with fingerprints, could instantly see that they matched. When he showed the proof to Rojas, she became hysterical and confessed that she had cut her own neck and killed her children because they had prevented her from marrying the man she loved.
When Alvarez returned to La Plata with the door section, his story created tremendous excitement within the police department. Vucetich could scarcely believe that his system had worked, and he would see several more cases successfully resolved over the next year utilizing his fingerprint system. The next several years, however, beginning in 1893, were incredibly frustrating for Vucetich. One police chief would order him to shut down his dactyloscopy system and replace it with the Bertillon system (anything coming from Paris, which included Bertillon's measurement system, was greeted with open arms by many Argentinians), while the next chief would reverse the order. By 1901, however, Argentina was the first country in the world to base its identification methods entirely on fingerprinting.
Vucetich would see his own fingerprint system became established throughout most of South America, where it is still used today. China, Japan, and many other non-European countries also adopted Vucetich's system, and even the celebrated French criminologist Edmond Locard considered it to be a near-perfect system. The system became known as Dactiloscopia (Dactyloscopy), or, sometimes, Vucetichismo.
1. Polson CJ: Finger prints and finger printing; Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 41:495; 1951.
2. Preller OR: Identification section of the Argentine federal police; Finger Print Magazine 30(April):1 1949.
3. Thorwald J: The Century of the Detective; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc: New York, NY; 1964.
4. Vucetich J: Brief history of identification; The Review of Identification and the Penal Sciences 7:19; 1931.
5. Wilton GW: Fingerprints: History, Law and Romance; William Hodge and Company, Ltd: London, UK; 1938.
6. Locard E: Un nouvel essai de classement dactyloscopique; Archives d'anthropologie criminelle, de medecine legale et de psychologie normale el pathologique 25:430; 1910.
There are several accounts of a meeting--the only meeting between Alphonse Bertillon and Juan Vucetich--and it did not go well. The most authoritative account of the meeting, which occurred in 1913, came from Bertillon's niece. Bertillon was suffering from a multitude of health problems and would, in fact, die the following year. In addition to his ill health, he knew that his anthropomorphic system of measurement, his Bertillon System, had fallen into disfavor among criminologists and would possibly not even survive him. And now, the calling card of the visitor waiting to see him read "Juan Vucetich", the man who had perhaps done more damage to his legacy than anyone else by having publicly denounced Bertillonage. Vucetich had come to pay his respects to Bertillon, but, according to reports, Bertillon let Vucetich wait outside for an inordinate amount of time, and when he finally opened the door to admit him, refused to shake his hand, angrily stated "Sir, you have tried to do me a great deal of harm!" and slammed the door in his face.
The author is thankful for assistance provided by Direccion Museo Policial-Ministerio de Seguridad de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Forensic Science Library Services Washington State Patrol Seattle, Washington United States of America
+1 206 262 6027; Jeff.Teitelbaum@wsp.wa.gov
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|Title Annotation:||TEITELBAUM'S COLUMN ON FORENSIC SCIENCE --HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE--|
|Publication:||Forensic Science Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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