The Case of Harry Jackson

The 9th September 1902 would see the first criminal trial in the United Kingdom take place in which an individual was convicted based on fingerprint evidence.

Earlier that year, on the 27th June, a burglary occurred at the house of Charles Driscoll Tustin in Denmark Hill, London where items including ivory billiard balls were stolen. The investigating officer noticed a number of fingerprints on a freshly painted windowsill where the burglar would have made his entry. He immediately informed the newly established Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau, and Detective-Sergeant Charles Stockley Collins arrived at the scene to photograph the fingerprints.

Returning to the Bureau, Collins and his colleagues discovered the fingerprints matched a 41-year-old labourer, Harry Jackson, who had recently served a prison term for burglary. He was promptly arrested and fingerprinted again. This new set was compared to the prints photographed from the crime scene and it was once again confirmed as a match.

Since the crime of burglary required a jury trial in the Old Bailey, Sir Edward Henry, the Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of the Metropolitan Police Service and Head of the Criminal Investigation Department, was determined to make this case succeed.

As the man who devised the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification and the founder of the Fingerprint Bureau, Henry had a special interest in this case. He knew that to succeed, he needed the very best prosecutor there was. Despite now knowing fingerprints are one of the most important pieces of forensic evidence, back then this was still an extremely new technique, and to win the case they would need to convince a sceptical jury. For these reasons, he decided on Richard Muir, a prosecutor with an infamous reputation for thoroughness.

Muir spent four days being briefed on the fingerprinting technique by Collins. It is claimed Muir afterwards became so convinced of its value that he said he would have taken a far shakier case if it could have helped Henry win public recognition for his work.

When Harry Jackson went on trial at the Old Bailey, Muir successfully convinced the jury of the absolute reliability of fingerprints. As a result, Harry Jackson was found guilty and received five convictions. He was sentenced to seven years in prison on 9th September 1902.

While the case served as a precedent for the admissibility of fingerprints as evidence, there were those unhappy about the turn of events. As one letter to The Times stated: “Scotland Yard, once known as the world’s finest police organisation, will be the laughing stock of Europe if it insists on trying to trace criminals by odd ridges on their skins.” Signed ‘A Disgusted Magistrate’.