Guest Author - Vance R. Rowe
Everyone has fingerprints, and just like snowflakes, everyoneís fingerprints are different and unique. Before fingerprint identification became commonplace, the Bertillion System of Identification was used. In 1882 a French anthropologist, Alphonse Bertillion, devised a method of body parts measurements to identify criminals. The criminal would be measured standing up, sitting down, arms outstretched were measured, the trunk of the body was measured, the height and width of the right ear, the length and width of the head were measured as was the left foot, and the left middle finger and little finger and the left forearm. Each of these measurements were put on a card along with the photo of the prisoner and kept in the filing cabinet of the prison and referred to when a person was brought to the prison for incarceration. Now the Bertillion System was flawed in the sense that if the person taking the measurements was not accurate, the measurements would be off and the same held true if the prisoner was drunk or belligerent, the measurements would also not be true.
Now obviously there was no national criminal database in the early 1800ís so these cards were unique to a prison that they were filed at and since identification cards and licenses were non-existent at the time, the cards were filed according to the measurements and not the name of the prisoner as people were not forthcoming with their real names when sent to prison. So if John Jones committed a crime, was caught and sent to prison, his Bertillion measurements were taken and looked up. If a card was found with the same or similar measurements, it was pulled and the person was identified by the measurements and the photo on the card, if this was not his first arrest.
That brings us to the case of Will West, an African-American man sent to Leavenworth prison in Kansas for incarceration in 1903. As West was being processed and his measurements were taken, the clerk at Leavenworth referred to the cards and when he found similar measurements, he pulled the card and was surprised to see the manís photo on the card. He was surprised because Will West said that this was the first time he was arrested and imprisoned. Another peculiar note was that the name on the card was William West. When the clerk showed West the card and the photo, he was shocked. He said that it was his picture but wanted to know how the clerk got it because he had never been arrested before.
William West was incarcerated at Leavenworth in 1901 for murder. Both men were identical looking and had similar body measurements but different fingerprints so when fingerprints became the new identification method in prisons, both men were fingerprinted just to be sure they were different. Conflicting researches have the two men listed as brothers and have never met in their lives, as if they were separated at birth or a very young age and others claim that they are father and son and never knew about each other. Others say that they were complete strangers and not related at all. Look them up on the interwebs and you will see what I am talking about. Itís amazing.