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Problems And Practices In Fingerprinting The Dead

Each year new graves are opened in potter's fields all over the United

States. Into many of them are placed the unknown dead--those who have

lived anonymously or who, through accident or otherwise, lose their

lives under such circumstances that identification seems impossible.

In a majority of such cases, after the burial of the body, no single

item or clue remains to effect subsequent identification. As a result,

e investigation usually ceases and the cases are forgotten,

unless, of course, it is definitely established that a murder has been


Reliance is too often placed on visual inspection in establishing the

identity of the deceased. This includes having the remains viewed by

individuals seeking to locate a lost friend or relative. The body is

often decomposed. If death was caused by burning, the victim may be

unrecognizable. As a result of many fatal accidents the deceased is

often mutilated, particularly about the face, so that visual

identification is impossible. Yet, in many cases, the only attempt at

identification is by having persons view the remains and the personal


The recorded instances of erroneous visual identifications are

numerous. In one case a body, burned beyond recognition, was

identified by relatives as that of a 21-year-old man; yet fingerprints

later proved that the corpse was that of a 55-year-old man.

Fingerprints have frequently been instrumental in establishing the

correct identity of persons killed in airplane crashes and incorrectly

identified by close relatives.

In one instance a woman found dead in a hotel room was positively

identified by several close friends. The body was shipped to the

father of the alleged deceased in another state where again it was

identified by close friends. Burial followed. Approximately one

month later the persons who had first identified the body as that of

their friend were sitting in a tavern when the dead woman walked

into the room. Authorities were immediately advised of the error; they

in turn advised the authorities in the neighboring state of the

erroneous identification and steps were taken immediately to rectify

the mistake. After permission had been granted by the State Health

Board to exhume the body of the dead woman, fingerprints were taken

and copies were forwarded to the FBI Identification Division. The

finger impressions were searched through the fingerprint files and the

true identity of the deceased was established.

During a 12-month period, the FBI Identification Division received

the fingerprints of 1,708 unknown dead. Of these, 1,298, or almost 76

percent, were identified. The remaining 410 were not identified simply

because fingerprints of these individuals were not in the FBI files.

It should be noted that in these 1,708 cases, it was possible to

secure legible fingerprints of the deceased in the usual manner by

inking the fingers in those instances in which decomposition had not

injured the ridge detail.

[Illustration: 387. Field equipment for disaster identification.]

In addition to the fingerprints of 1,708 unknown dead, the

Identification Division received the fingers and/or the hands of 85

unknown dead individuals. In these cases, decomposition was so far

advanced that it was not possible to secure inked fingerprints in the

regular manner. Of these, 68 bodies, or 80 percent of the group, were

identified. Of the 17 unidentified, the fingerprints of 14 were not in

the FBI files. In three cases decomposition was so far advanced that

all ridge detail had been destroyed.

In order to emphasize what can be accomplished, it is pointed out that

in those cases in which hands and fingers were submitted, the time

which elapsed from death until the specimens were received ranged from

a week to 3 years. Incredible as it may seem, it has been possible to

secure identifiable impressions 3 years after death.

These statistics of achievement in the field of identifying unknown

dead re-emphasize the fact that in all cases involving the

identification of a deceased person, fingerprints should be used as

the medium for establishing a conclusive and positive identification.

Generally speaking, in the course of their work fingerprint operators

find it necessary to take the impressions of three classes of deceased


They are:

- Those who have died recently, in which cases the task is

relatively simple.

- Those dead for a longer period, in which cases difficulty

is experienced due to pronounced stiffening of the fingers,

the early stages of decomposition, or both.

- Those cases in which extreme difficulty is encountered

because of maceration, desiccation, or advanced decay of the


These problems will be considered separately.

1. Fingerprinting the Newly Dead.

When the fingers are flexible it is often possible to secure inked

fingerprint impressions of a deceased person through the regular

inking process on a standard fingerprint card. Experience has proved

that this task can be made easier if the deceased is laid face down

and palms down on a table (fig. 388).

In all cases where inked impressions are to be made, care should be

exercised to see that the fingers are clean and dry before inking. If

necessary, wash the digits with soap and water and dry thoroughly.

In the event difficulty is encountered in trying to procure

fingerprints by the regular method, it may prove more convenient to

cut the 10 squares numbered for the rolled impressions from a

fingerprint card. After the finger is inked, the square is rolled

around the finger without letting it slip. Extreme caution should be

exercised to see that each square bears the correct fingerprint

impression. After all the inked impressions are properly taken, the

ten squares bearing the impressions are pasted or stapled to a

standard fingerprint card in their proper positions, i.e., right

thumb, right index, right middle, etc. Whenever possible the plain

or simultaneous impressions should also be taken.

In some cases it will be found necessary to obtain or improvise a tool

similar to a broad-bladed putty knife or spatula to be used as an

inking instrument. The ink is rolled evenly and thinly on the knife or

spatula and applied to the finger by passing the inked knife or

spatula around it. The tool, of course, replaces the usual glass

inking slab or plate, the use of which is extremely difficult or

awkward when printing a deceased person.

2. Fingerprinting the Dead, Where Stiffening of the Fingers and/or

Early Decomposition Are Present.

This second group consists of cases in which the hands of the deceased

are clenched, or the finger tips are wrinkled, or decomposition has

begun, and/or where there are combinations of these three conditions.

Cases of this sort may necessitate cutting off the skin. Legal

authority is necessary before cutting a corpse. Such authority may be

granted by state law or by an official having authority to grant such

a right.

In cases where rigor mortis (stiffening of the muscles) has set in and

the fingers are tightly clenched, the fingers may be forcibly

straightened by breaking the rigor. This is done by holding the hand

of the deceased person firmly with one hand, grasping the finger to be

straightened with the four fingers of the other hand and placing the

thumb, which is used as a lever, on the knuckle of the finger and

forcing it straight (fig. 389). The inking tool and squares, as

previously explained, are then used to secure the fingerprint.

In the event the rigor cannot be completely overcome, it will be most

helpful to improvise or secure a spoon-shaped tool for holding the cut

squares or cut strips while printing the fingers, similar to the tool

mentioned briefly in the discussion of crippled fingers. This tool,

somewhat resembling a gouge without the sharp edge, should have a

handle, a concave end, and a frame or clamp to hold the cardboard

squares or strips. In Figure 390, one type of tool is illustrated.

This tool eliminates the necessity of rolling the deceased's finger,

since the square assumes the concave shape of the tool, and the

gentle pressure applied to the inked finger when it is brought in

contact with the square results in a rolled impression without

actually rolling the finger.

Another problem encountered in this second group includes cases in

which the tips of the fingers are fairly pliable and intact, yet due

to the presence of wrinkles in the skin, complete impressions cannot

be obtained. This condition can be corrected by the injection of a

tissue builder, procurable from a dealer in undertaker's supplies. If

this is not available, glycerin or water may be used.

The method is simple. Injection of the tissue builder, glycerin, or

water, is accomplished by the use of a hypodermic syringe. The

hypodermic needle is injected at the joint of the finger up into the

tip of the finger, care being used to keep the needle below the skin

surface (fig. 391). The solution is injected until the finger bulbs

are rounded out, after which they are inked and printed.

Occasionally, in stubborn cases, entry of the needle at the joint and

injection of the fluid will not completely fill the finger bulb. It

may be necessary, therefore, to inject the fluid at other points of

the finger such as the extreme tip or sides, until suitable results

are achieved (fig. 392). The tissue builder has a distinct advantage

over glycerin or water, inasmuch as the builder hardens after a short

time and is not lost, whereas glycerin and water sometimes seep out

when pressure is applied in printing. To offset seepage at the point

where the hypodermic needle is injected, whenever possible, tie a

piece of string tightly around the finger just above the point of

entry of the needle.

When the tissue builder is purchased, a solvent for cleaning the

hypodermic syringe and needle should be acquired, inasmuch as the

builder will harden in the syringe and needle.

Those cases in which decomposition in its early stage is present

belong in this group also. Frequently, the outer layer of skin has

begun to peel from the fingers. A careful examination should be made

to determine if the peeling skin is intact or if a part of it has been

lost. If the skin is in one piece, an effort should be made to secure

prints just as though it were attached normally to the finger. Or, if

it is deemed advisable, the skin may be peeled off in one piece,

placed over the finger of the operator, and inked and printed as

though it were his own finger.

Occasionally the first layer of skin is missing. There remains the

dermis or second layer of skin which is also of value for

identification purposes. This second layer would be dealt with as

though it were the outside skin, using the techniques described above.

The ridge detail of the second layer of skin is less pronounced than

that of the outer skin, however, and more attention and care are

needed in order to obtain suitable impressions.

So far this discussion has dealt with the taking of impressions of

fingers when the flesh is fairly firm and the ridge detail intact. A

different problem arises when the fingers are in various stages of

decay. The techniques of treating the fingers in such cases vary

greatly, depending upon the condition of the fingers with respect to

decomposition, desiccation, or maceration.

3. Fingerprinting the Dead in Difficult Cases.

In cases involving badly decomposed bodies the first thing to do is to

examine the fingers to see if all are present. If they are not, an

effort should be made to determine whether the missing finger or

fingers or even a hand was amputated during the person's lifetime, or

whether the loss was due to other causes such as destruction by animal

or marine life. Deductions from this examination should be noted on

the fingerprint record. This point is made in view of the fact that in

the fingerprint files of the FBI and some police departments, the

fingerprint cards reflecting amputations are filed separately. Noting

amputations may lessen to a great extent a search through the

fingerprint files.

In making the initial examination, attention should be given to the

removal of dirt, silt, grease and other foreign matter from the

fingers. Soap and water are good cleansing agents. So is xylene, a

chemical which will readily clean grease and fatty matter from the

fingers. Good results can be achieved by utilizing a child's

soft-bristled toothbrush in cases where the skin is fairly firm. The

brushing should be done lightly and the strokes should follow the

ridge design in order to clean not only the ridges but the depressions

as well. In the event that the skin is not firm enough to use the

toothbrush, a cotton swab may be used. The fingers should be wiped

very lightly with either soap and water or xylene, always following

the ridge contours.

At this point the fingers are again examined to determine the

condition they are in, based upon the circumstances in which the body

was found. Study and actual experience have shown that there are three

general types of conditions to be considered: Decomposition or

putrefaction, prevalent in bodies found in brush or buried in earth;

desiccation or mummification (that is, dried out), noted in bodies

which have been found in the open (ridge detail not in contact with

the ground) in dry protected places, or bodies subjected to severe

heat; and the group involving maceration (water soaking), which

ordinarily results from being immersed in water.

The degree of decomposition, desiccation, or maceration varies from a

comparatively early stage to an extremely advanced stage. Accordingly,

each case must be considered individually. For example, what is done

successfully in one case of desiccation may not show favorable results

in another. Hence, the techniques outlined below point out generally

what can be done, and has been done, with success.

When a body is found, the hands usually will be tightly clenched. The

first problem will be to straighten the fingers. If rigor mortis has

set in and an effort to straighten the fingers as previously explained

fails, the difficulty can be overcome easily. Using a scalpel, make a

deep cut at the second joint on the inner side of each of the four

fingers. They can now be straightened with the application of force

(fig. 393). The thumb, if it is cramped or bent, can generally be

straightened by making a deep cut between the thumb and the index

finger. These incisions are made for the obvious purpose of examining

the fingers to determine if there is any ridge detail. Before this

fact can be definitely ascertained it may be necessary to cleanse the

pattern areas with soap and water or xylene, as previously explained.