The Fingerprint Experiment

By the time Charles Baker returned from his second trip to Europe, Captain Parke had been transferred to the Prison Department's headquarters in Albany, New York. Promoted to the position of bookkeeper, he was working as a parole statistician in Room 111 of the Capitol, the same room which housed the Bertillon Bureau.

The books Baker and Lamb had purchased in London were given to Parke along with the task of setting up a test fingerprint file for the Prison Department. As this task was in addition to his regular duties, Parke took the books home to review them.

Living with Parke was his 22-year-old son, Edward. Occasionally employed and sporadically interned in TB sanatoriums, Edward was, during the winter of 1902-03, experiencing a resurgence of health and a great deal of free time. Along with his father, he read through the dry and esoteric prose of Sirs Henry and Galton until it began to make sense.

In time, the Parkes were able to decipher the intricacies of Henry's classification system. As the system became clearer to them, so did its weaknesses.

The first and most obvious problem was storage. The Henry System called for fingerprints to be recorded on large paper sheets called "slips." These slips were filed flat on shelves or in pigeon holes, which consumed a great deal of space. New York's Bertillon files were already spilling out into the adjoining hallway and there was little space left in Room 111 to devote to an additional identification file. This prompted Parke to propose developing a fingerprint form of stiff cardboard and of a less awkward size which could be filed upright in drawers as the Bertillon cards were.

Superintendent Collins denied his suggestion. New York's Fingerprint Unit, he reasoned, should imitate the English system as closely as possible in order to facilitate the future exchange of fingerprint records.

Fingerprint Systems Compared The second problem with the English System was its division of fingerprint records into primary groups. Henry's method was unnecessarily complex. It attached values to each of the ten fingers and then accrued these values for any finger in which a whorl pattern appeared, first in the even and then in the odd numbered digits.

What Parke proposed was to calculate the primary in a similar way, but using the patterns as they appeared in sequence on the fingerprint form -- right hand first, then left hand.

A person with the fingerprint patterns Loop, Loop, Arch, Whorl, Loop in the right hand and Whorl, Loop, Whorl, Loop, Loop in the left hand would, under Parke's system, have a primary classification of 3 over 21, whereas the same person, under the Henry System, would have a primary of 15 over 1. The only time a Henry Primary would match one of Parke's was when whorls appeared in all ten fingers (32/32), or in none (1/1).

Although Collins had denied Parke permission to convert to a more suitably sized fingerprint card out of concern for future exchanges with the British, he allowed this radical alteration of their filing system.

1st Fingerprint Record Parke had slips made up measuring 8 1/2 by 13 1/2 inches which mimicked the English forms, and in March of 1903, while accompanying the parole board on their rounds of the State's prisons, began fingerprinting inmates.

Initially, while he and Edward continued working out their modifications, Captain Parke concentrated on recording prints. Any filing accomplished during these initial months of operation was done according to Henry's formula.

[Beginning of Chapter] [Next Chapter] [Table of Contents]