There are few people in the identification world, who are not aware of the story of Will and William West. They were the two inmates at Leavenworth Penitentiary, during the 19th century.
They were both sent to Leavenworth Prison at the same time. The record clerks were confused first and later learned that they were two different prisoners. They had the exact same name and looked exactly alike. The only thing, that could be possibly used for identification was their fingerprints.
The Identical Strangers’ Story
For about a century, “The story of Will West and William West” has been discussed again and again, as history or as a fable. The stories with time have different details, different twists, and are rewritten several times. However, the purest form of the story reveals the same incident:
The man in both the pictures are Will West and William West, and they were both sentenced to jail at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas over a century years ago. The arrival of Will West caused a wild confusion in prison, especially for the records clerk. M.W McClaughry, the records clerk was sure that he had processed him two years previously.
However, Will West denied his imprisonment there. Mr. McClaughry ran the Bertillion instruments over him because he knew the reluctance of criminals to admit past crimes.
Sure enough, Mr. McClaughry referred to the formula derived from West’s Bertillon measurements. He discovered the file of William West, whose measurements and photographs were practically the same, as of the new prisoner.
But, Will West was not lying. Will insisted to the reports clerk, that he had not visit Leavenworth before. He told him, “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”
Mr. MrClaughry looked into the records of William West and discovered that he was already in the Penitentiary, admitted two years earlier, serving a life sentence for murder.
Hence, as a last resort, the fingerprints of Will and William West were compared. To McClaughry’s surprise, the patterns bore no resemblance, both completely different from each other.
Fingerprint as Identification For Will and William West
The “West Brothers Case” highlighted the flaws in the Bertillon method and it was not long before U.S authorities turned to fingerprint.
Its pioneer was Scotland Yard’s Sgt. John K. Ferrier, who met McClaughry at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904 while he was guarding the Crown Jewels, which were on tour.
He told the U.S prison officer how Scotland Yard had been using fingerprinting as a reliable and accurate record for the past three years. Ostensibly, McClaughry’s recommendation was accepted. On 2nd November of 1994, the Attorney General authorized the installation of the new system. Prior to this, during October 1904, Sgt. Ferrier visited the Leavenworth Prison and gave instructions on the fingerprint system.
The awareness of fingerprint identification to Leavenworth Prison, with the arrival of Will West. After being instructed on the technique, Mr. McClaughry introduced it to the Leavenworth Prison. America’s first national fingerprint repository was established shortly afterward.
History of First Fingerprints:
Fingerprints were first used in 1858 with Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in West Bengal, India, who asked locals, to stamp their business contracts with their palms. However, he did it because back then, most Indians had little education even for their signatures and as a good way of identifying someone. He was not aware of the scientific reason behind it.