Two incarcerated men with identical names and similar faces are the reason that fingerprints are used as identification.
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A story has been circulating for years that claims that the development of fingerprint identification comes from a case of two men who were both named William West, and who had very similar faces. Social media posts claim that the men were unrelated, and were both sent to the same prison in 1903.
Longer versions of the story elaborate by claiming that the previous method of identification, in which authorities measured a person’s facial features and limbs, failed because the men also had identical measurements.
The story of William West and William West is regarded as a myth among historians and forensic sociologists. Both men were arrested in Kansas in 1903, and the use of fingerprinting had been spreading throughout the US criminal justice system since two years before. It wasn’t the older system of identification that failed to distinguish between the men, leading to the need for fingerprinting, but police error. Criminal justice historian Simon Cole writes that officials overlooked differences in the men’s body measurements and that later “pro-fingerprinting activists” may have propagandized the story.
Using fingerprints for identification purposes dates back to antiquity when they were used to sign contracts or identify authorship on pottery and other creations. The first documented murder case to be solved using fingerprints was in Argentina in 1892, in which a woman was accused of, and later confessed to killing her two sons. The first fingerprint bureau, which was a kind of database and center for study, was established in 1897.
While the story also states that West and West were unrelated, some records show that they corresponded with the same family members, suggesting some further connection. Records also cite one fellow inmate who claimed that he knew the men before prison and that they were twin brothers.
Furthermore, a search of historical literature about the case shows that it was only recorded in print in 1918, indicating that it wasn’t as significant an event as the myth assumes.