The Massive FBI’s Fingerprint Files, 1944

During World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, United States Department of Justice investigated violations of the laws of the US and collected evidence in cases in which the country might be involved. In the early 1940s, the FBI’s filing system archive in Washington D.C. housed more than 23 million card and 10 million fingerprint records, with 400,000 new cards added each and every month.

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The federal government led by President Roosevelt had invested ample amount of resources to identify potential defaulters and spies that might be a threat to the sovereignty of the United States. Towards the end of 1943, the FBI had employed around 13,000 employees for this task.

Since the 1920s, the FBI has been a sole US repository for fingerprints in the state. The bureau introduced computers for accessing the records and databases in the year 1980. In 1999, the FBI stored and accessed its fingerprint database via the digital IAFIS (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System). Here, a law enforcement official can request a set of criminal prints from IAFIS and get a response within two hours.

The history of fingerprint authentication in the United States:

The massive FBI's fingerprint files, 1944 - Rare Historical Photos

The first authentic record of the use of fingerprints in the United States dates back to the year 1882 when Gilbert Thompson of the US Geological Survey utilized his thumb impression to prevent the forgery of commissary orders. This happened during his supervision of a survey in New Mexico.

The first practical introduction of fingerprints for criminal identification in the United States was in the prison system of New York State in the year 1903. At first, the US Department of Justice’s Fingerprint Bureau at Leavenworth Penitentiary contained the fingerprints of Federal prisoners only. Later, a growing list of contributing peace officers received these criminal records for investigation purposes.

The French scientist Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method to transfer fingerprints on various surfaces to paper using the process of iodine fuming. Since then, the London Scotland Yard began fingerprinting individuals in order to identify criminals using fingerprints in 1901. Later, the American police departments adopted the same strategy, making fingerprint identification a standard practice in the US.

In Illinois in 1910, fingerprint evidence was successfully put to use for the very first time in the United States. Accused Thomas Jennings murdered Clarence Hiller and the officials arrested him after discovering his fingerprints at Hiller’s house. Jennings appealed his conviction. However, the Supreme Court of Illinois held him guilty and ordered his execution in 1912. Thus, this established fingerprint evidence as a reliable standard. There was a growing consistent demand by police officials throughout the US for a national-level uniform system of cooperation. The Identification Division came into action under the jurisdiction of the FBI.

The evolution of fingerprint identification and usage:

The massive FBI's fingerprint files, 1944 - Rare Historical Photos

Over the next 50 years the FBI processed more than 200 million fingerprint cards. It was necessary to eliminate duplicate fingerprints and make it easier to store and share fingerprints among law enforcement agencies. Hence, the FBI developed the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in 1991. This computerized the traditional card system.

IAFIS kept these fingerprint records for not only criminals, but for people who applied for government jobs, jobs that handled confidential information, banking jobs, teaching jobs, law enforcement jobs, or other jobs involving security issues.

How were these fingerprints classified?

Computerized classification became a thing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Before that, the Henry system of classification was used. Sir Edward Richard Henry in 1896 primarily developed this system. Unfortunately, it could only accommodate files of up to 100,000 sets of prints. After that, it became too cumbersome. The FBI further modified the system by adding additional extensions, the first step in classification being essentially the same.

(a detailed explanation of Henry system of classification)

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