Police and other government
authorities had been using fingerprints for record-keeping for more than
50 years when Jennings murdered Hiller, and the knowledge that a
person’s fingerprints were unique and unchanging had been recognized by
ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Japanese for centuries.
However, it took time police to
take the next step: that fingerprints found at a crime scene could be
linked to a particular criminal. It wasn’t until 1902, when a thief left
fingerprints on a dusty windowsill in Dunwich, England, that police
managed to track down the criminal solely on the basis of his prints.
The fingerprints of Harry Jackson were not introduced as evidence in
that case — they were simply a means for the police to find their man
and extract a confession.
In 1905, again in England,
fingerprints finally found their way into a courtroom when two brothers
were arrested for the murder of a shopkeeper. One of the brothers left a
thumbprint on a cashbox. He had a police record and after a painstaking
search, police confirmed that the print belonged to Alfred Stratton. He
and his brother, Albert, were tried and convicted of that murder.
But in the United States,
fingerprinting was still a secondary means of identification after the
Bertillon method that measured dozens of body parts to form a unique
picture of the criminal. Bertillonage was a lengthy and arduous process
that was proved to be less accurate than Auguste Bertillon believed in
the strange case of William and Will West who showed up concurrently at
Leavenworth Penitentiary much to the dismay of the record clerks there.
Americans did keep fingerprint
records of convicted criminals, but using prints left at a crime scene
to locate a criminal remained problematic because at the time there was
no means of effectively lifting prints found at the crime scene except
to photograph them.
Jennings’s case is noteworthy
because it marks the first time in American jurisprudence that
fingerprint evidence was introduced into the courtroom to establish the
defendant’s presence at the crime scene. The fingerprints didn’t convict
Jennings, but they did play an important part in bringing the
burglar-turned-murderer to justice.
Thomas Jennings had been released from Joliet Penitentiary for serving a
burglary term just weeks before he broke into the Hiller home. In
between the events he purchased a revolver. Poverty forced him to pawn
the weapon to a saloon-keeper, but on September 18, 1910, Jennings
retrieved the weapon and immediately put it to use.
The Hiller family lived in a single-family home on West 104th Street in
Chicago, not far from the interurban railway tracks. On the west side of
their home was a vacant lot, and immediately after that was a home
occupied by the McNabb family.
In the early hours of September 19, Jennings broke into each of these
homes in search of swag or something else.
About 2 a.m. on September 19, Mrs.
McNabb was awakened and saw a man standing in the door with a lighted
match over his head. The man was tall, broad-shouldered, and very dark.
He came over to her and placed his hand on her shoulder twice, then put
his hand under her clothes against her bare body.
She kept shoving his hand away and cried out, “What is the matter?” The
man did not reply but went to the dresser and stood there a minute and
then went down the stairs.
Her daughter, Jessie, asleep in bed with her mother, was awakened and
saw the intruder. She testified he wore a light-colored shirt and
“figured suspenders;” that he was large, with broad shoulders.
Jennings was having a bad night as
a burglar. He had previously attempted to break into a home about a mile
away from the McNabb and Hiller homes, but was discovered by the
homeowner who managed to tear away a pocket from his jacket.
After his failure at the Pickens and McNabb homes, Jennings tried a
third time. By this time his luck had really run out; his third strike
would earn him a place in the history of American jurisprudence.
Ten minutes after Jennings fled
the McNabb home, 15-year-old Clarice Hiller awoke to find a man standing
in the doorway of her room. The man was holding a lighted match that
revealed his torso, but his face was in the shadows. It was Clarence
Hiller’s practice to check on his children at night, so Clarice said
later that she wasn’t afraid of the man she mistook for her father.
The shadowy figure left her room
when Clarice sat up in bed, and entered the room of 13-year-old
Florence. The teenage girl awoke to find someone sitting on her bed, and
in her stupor she assumed it was her brother, Gerald.
“Is that you Gerald?” she asked, but she received no reply.
“Who is this?” she asked, and a man’s voice, — not her father’s, —
answered, “It is me.”
Florence would later testify that
she tried to scream but was unable to do so. She also told the court
that the man pushed up her nightgown and ran his hands over her body.
The intruder also placed his “prickly cheek upon her face and moved
about in various ways upon the bed,” court records show.
By this time, Mrs. Hiller had awakened and noticed that a gaslight in
the hallway that was always left burning had been extinguished. She woke
up Clarence, who got out of bed to investigate it.
In the hallway, he ran into
Jennings, who was just leaving Florence’s room. The two men scuffled at
the top of the stairs and fell down the staircase. At the bottom of the
stairs Jennings took out his revolver and shot Clarence Hiller twice.
As Jennings made his escape, the sound of the Hiller family screams and
the gunshots drew the neighbors. John Pickens, his son, Oliver, and a
beat cop named Floyd Beardsley were the first responders. They found
Clarence Hiller dead or dying, his white nightshirt saturated with
At the crime scene, Officer
Beardsley found three unfired cartridges and the two slugs that had
passed clear through Clarence’s body. Clarence had been shot through the
heart and lungs.
Jennings left other trace evidence
at the scene. When Mrs. Pickens was upstairs to get a blanket to cover
the corpse, she noticed some sand and gravel near Florence’s bed and
alerted the police to this fact. Similar dirt was found later in
Most importantly, Jennings left four fingerprints on a freshly painted
porch railing. The paint was still tacky and the outline of the ridges
of his fingerprints were clearly visible. The railing was removed to the
Chicago crime lab where the criminalists photographed the fingerprints.
Jennings had barely gone a half
mile when he ran into a group of off-duty police waiting for the
interurban train to take them home. His suspicious behavior, bloody
clothes, and firearm aroused their suspicions and he was taken into
custody. These officers had no idea that they were arresting a man who
was suspected of murder.
At his trial Jennings offered a weak, easily rebutted fake alibi, and
because of his claims to have been elsewhere during the commission of
the robbery spree that ended in murder, the McNabbs were allowed to
testify that it was Jennings who invaded their home shortly before the
The most damning evidence was the
fingerprints left at the scene. When he was imprisoned in Joliet,
Jennings had been fingerprinted and he was subsequently fingerprinted
upon his arrest by Chicago police.
Four experts examined the various fingerprints and stated under oath
that they all matched. The jury, treated to a lengthy discussion of the
science of fingerprinting, believed the evidence and convicted Jennings
of murder. He was sentenced to death.
Not surprisingly, Jennings raised the issue of fingerprint evidence on
his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. He argued that there was no
statute allowing such evidence and further, no precedent existed in an
The Court, however, was unmoved by
“While the courts of this country do not appear to have had occasion to
pass on the question, standard authorities on scientific subjects
discuss the use of finger prints as a system of identification,
concluding that experience has shown it to be reliable,” the court held.
“We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who
testified and from the writings we have referred to on this subject,
that there is a scientific basis for the system of finger-print
identification and that the courts are justified in admitting this class
of evidence; that this method of identification is in such general and
common use that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of
The court presented a lengthy
discussion on the admission of evidence, but in the end, relied on
common sense to justify its decision.
“If inferences as to the identity of persons based on the voice, the
appearance or age are admissible, why does not this record justify the
admission of this finger-print testimony under common law rules of
evidence?” the court asked rhetorically. “The general rule is, that
whatever tends to prove any material fact is relevant and competent.”
Justice was swift at the turn of
the 20th century, even in capital cases. Jennings killed Clarence Hiller
in September 1910. He was convicted of murder in February 1911; the
Supreme Court upheld his conviction in December 1911, and he was
executed on February 16, 1912.
His case, however, lives on as the first example of fingerprint evidence
being used in an American court.