On the 23 May 1905 both Albert and his brother
Alfred Stratton were both hanged for the murders of Thomas Farrow and
his wife Ann. The sentence was carried out at Wandsworth Prison by
This was a step out of character for the two brothers
who up until now had been petty criminals with crimes such as burglary
and housebreaking on their records. Sordid though the case was it did
in fact mark an important landmark in British Criminal History as being
the first murder case in which the accused were convicted on Fingerprint
Thomas and his wife Ann ran a small paint shop in
South East London. They both lived in the flat above and the shop had
been the focus of their lives for many years, in fact they were both
quite elderly and would no doubt soon be thinking of retiring. It was
not to be however because of the greed of two men. When the Farrow's
assistant arrived as usual for work on the 27 March it was to be faced
with the sort of horror normally kept for late night films.
Thomas Farrow lay on the floor of the parlour with
his skull caved in. A cashbox had been prised open and lay empty. More
horror lay upstairs where Mrs Farrow was found alive but unconscious,
her injuries were serious and she died four days later.
The police did however have one major clue which was
a thumbprint on the tray of the cash box. It was a clear print and
although fingerprint technology was still in its infancy this was
something it could definately cut its teeth on. Accepting that the
murders had been a result of the robbery and not the intention they
started checking out all known housebreakers and suspicion soon fell on
the Stratton brothers who did not seem to have proper alibis. They were
arrested and brought into custody where their fingerprints were taken.
It was found that the thumbprint on Alfreds right
hand was an exact match for the one found on the cash box tray.
Evidence was also given by a milkman who stated that he saw two men
leaving the shop early that morning. Armed with this evidence the
police were happy they had the right men and the Stratton brothes were
tried at the Old Bailey in May 1905. The thumbprint evidence was
strongly contested by the defence but was accepted by the jury and the
two were found guilty.
Alfred Stratton (born c. 1883) and his
brother Albert Ernest (born c. 1885, both died May 23, 1905)
were the first men to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based
on fingerprint evidence. The case, otherwise known as the Mask
Murders (due to the black stocking-top masks that had been left at
the scene of the crime), the Deptford Murders (due to the
location) or the Farrow Murders (the last name of the victims),
is widely regarded as the case that truly launched forensic science.
On Monday, March 27, 1905, at 8:30 am, William
Jones went to Chapman's Oil and Colour Shop on High Street in Deptford
where he worked. When he arrived at the shop he found it closed and
shuttered, which he found very unusual. The manager of the paint shop
Thomas Farrow, aged 71, lived with his wife, Ann, aged
65, in the flat above the shop and he was not in the habit of having
the shop still closed at such a late hour. Unable to open the door, he
tried knocking but since he did not get any response from either Mr.
and Mrs. Farrow he peeked through a window and saw that there were
chairs knocked over.
Alarmed at what he saw, he ran for help and found
Louis Kidman, a local resident who worked in a nearby store, and the
two men forced their way into the shop. It was not long before they
found the body of Mr. Farrow on the ground dead, while Mrs. Farrow was
found barely alive but unconscious in the couple's bed in the upstairs
flat. Both bore the signs of being repeatedly beaten. A doctor and the
police were called and Mrs. Farrow was taken to hospital.
Despite the disarray within the shop, the police
found no signs of forced entry. It was shortly determined that robbery
was the motive: Jones told the police that Mr. Farrow would collect
the week's earnings and deposit them to a local bank every Monday, and
an empty cash box was found on the floor, which was estimated to
contain about £10, a considerable amount of money at that time. To
ensure the doctor would not trip over it, Sergeant Albert Atkinson
pushed it aside with his bare hands. It was at this point that Chief
Inspector Frederick Fox and Melville MacNaghten, the Assistant
Commissioner (Crime) of the Metropolitan Police and head of the
Criminal Investigation Department took over the case.
Aside from the lack of forced entry as well as the
empty cash box, it was clear that Mr. and Mrs. Farrow were attacked
separately and the discovery of two black masks fashioned from
stockings that were left at the scene indicated that there were two
men involved. Since they were in their night clothes, the police had
speculated that Mr. Farrow was deceived into opening the door while he
was still half asleep. He was immediately attacked, but was still
conscious enough to go after the robbers, and was hit again. His
assailants went up to the upstairs flat, attacked Mrs. Farrow, located
the cash box, and fled with the money. However, based on the separate
pools of blood at the scene, it was determined that Mr. Farrow had
again regained consciousness, and this time the men killed him and
afterwards washed their hands in a nearby basin.
greasy smudge on the cash box
When MacNaghten was told of the empty cash box, he
chose to examine it. He noticed that on the underside of the box's
inner tray, there was a greasy smudge which appeared to be a
fingerprint. As a member of the Belper Committee which recommended the
use of fingerprints as a method for identification five years before,
he wondered if this might be a case to test out this new technique. He
used his handkerchief to carefully pick up the cash box, had it
wrapped in paper and took it in to the fledgling Fingerprinting Bureau
at Scotland Yard.
Established on July 1, 1901, the Fingerprint Bureau
had proven its worth since the conviction of Harry Jackson for
burglary due to fingerprint evidence a year later. It was now headed
by Detective Inspector Charles Stockley Collins who was regarded as
the foremost English fingerprint expert of his time. Despite its
earlier successes, especially in identifying previously convicted
criminals who tried to pass themselves off pseudonymously, the
technique was still considered unwieldy and both men knew that they
were risking public ridicule due to the intense scrutiny that a murder
case would generate. Furthermore, even if they succeeded in
identifying the owner of the fingerprint, they still needed to
convince a potential jury sufficiently to convict.
Detective Inspector Collins examined the print
thoroughly and determined that the print was made through perspiration
and appeared to have been left by the thumb, probably from the right
hand. He compared it with those of the Farrows and that of Detective
Sergeant Atkinson and was satisfied that the print did not belong to
any of those people. Although the Bureau had 80,000-90,000 sets of
prints on file, there was no match on any of them as well, which meant
that they would need to find a suspect to compare it with. The initial
hope of the police was that Mrs. Farrow would give a description of
her assailants, but she died in hospital on March 31 without regaining
Positive identification and arrest
In an effort to identify the robbers, the police
resorted to the usual practice of interviewing potential witnesses to
the crime. Fortunately there was no shortage of them, for many saw two
men — one of them dressed in a dark brown suit and cap, the other in a
dark blue serge suit and bowler hat — leave the paint shop at around
7:30 in the morning of March 27. Two of these witnesses — a
professional boxer named Henry John Littlefield and a local girl named
Ellen Stanton — positively identified the one in the dark brown suit
as Alfred Stratton.
Although he did not have a criminal record, Alfred
Stratton was known to the police as being a "vagabond" and was known
to have contacts in the criminal underworld. Alfred's brother Albert
was also a known police character, and the description of the other
man given by the witnesses matched him. The identification of Alfred
was apparently confirmed when Alfred's girlfriend Annie Cromarty told
the police that he had disposed of his dark brown coat and changed his
shoes the day after the murder; she also recalled him asking for a
pair of old stockings. Based on this lead, warrants for the arrest of
the pair were issued, and they were taken to custody on April 2 and
fingerprinted. Based on a tip by Annie Cromarty, police were able to
recover £4 that was buried near a local waterworks.
When Detective Inspector Collins received the two
sets of fingerprints taken from the Stratton brothers, he compared
them to the print on the cash box, and he concluded that it exactly
matched with the right thumbprint of Alfred Stratton. The brothers
were charged with murder and the trial set on May 5, 1905 at the Old
When the Stratton brothers were brought to trial,
MacNaghten, Collins, and Richard Muir, the prosecutor for the Crown,
knew that they would face an uphill battle. Since the fingerprint was
the only tangible evidence that they had, the case would stand or fall
on that evidence, and the defence would try their best to undermine it.
Fingerprinting pioneer Henry Faulds was a vocal detractor, because he
had the mistaken notion that one fingerprint match was unreliable;
thus the defence retained him as a witness. Also set to testify for
the defence was Dr. John George Garson, who advocated anthropometry
over fingerprinting as a means of identification. Both men were
professional rivals of Edward Henry, the Commissioner of the
Metropolitan Police, who established the Fingerprint Bureau and was
responsible for the acceptance of fingerprinting in the British legal
system; he was also in attendance.
The prosecution called over 40 witnesses to the
stand. Muir and his team wanted to place the two defendants at the
scene of the crime, and despite Muir's inherent distrust of eyewitness
testimony, he was counting on their consistency to reinforce the
fingerprint evidence. Although some of them like Henry Alfred Jennings,
a local milkman, were not able to make a positive identification of
the defendants despite being consistent in their general appearance,
others like Henry Littlefield and Ellen Stanton were positive in their
identification of Alfred Stratton. The Home Office pathologist who did
the post-mortem on the Farrows told the court that the injuries on the
Farrows were consistent with being inflicted by weapons similar to the
tools that the brothers had in their possession.
Kate Wade, Albert Stratton's girlfriend, testified
that Albert was not with her during the night of the murder, and he
usually stayed with her. In addition, Annie Cromarty, Alfred's
girlfriend, testified that Alfred had come home on the morning of
March 27 with a good amount of money without explaining where he
obtained it; she also added that he threw out the clothes that he wore
that day when he saw the newspaper accounts of the murder, and that
Alfred asked her to tell the police, or anyone else who asked, that he
was with her the night of the murder.
However, the defense counsels, H.G. Rooth, Curtis
Bennett and Harold Morris, were able to give plausible alternative
explanations, which would tend to cast doubt on the prosecution's
witnesses, so much so that they were confident enough to have Alfred
Stratton take the stand. He testified that at about 2:30 in the
morning of the 27th, he was awakened by his brother Albert who was
tapping on the window and wanted to borrow money from him for a
night's lodging. He replied that he would check if he had some, and
when Alfred came back to tell his brother that he had none, Albert was
gone. He went out and found his brother some distance away, in Regent
Street. It was there that they were seen by several witnesses who
testified having seen them at around that time. He told his brother
that he had no money and offered to let him stay for the night. Albert
agreed and slept on the floor, and the brothers stayed until 9 in the
morning. He explained the £4 that was recovered by the police as money
which he won over a boxing contest a couple of months before. He
buried the money three weeks prior to the murders and he intended to
give the money to Annie Cromarty.
Muir had anticipated this tactic by the defence,
and before calling Inspector Collins, he summoned William Gittings,
who worked in the jail where the Stratton brothers were confined
awaiting trial. Gittings related a conversation that he had with
Albert Stratton, who said, "I reckon he (Alfred) will get strung up
and I shall get about ten years…He has led me into this." Muir hoped
to impress the jury into thinking that that statement would be counted
as a confession. Then he called Inspector Collins to the stand.
It was Muir's intention to first establish
Inspector Collins' credentials as an expert in the field of
fingerprinting before the jury, then explain, in layman's terms, how
fingerprinting worked as a means of identification. Collins was then
made to discuss the fingerprint involved in the case. He showed the
jury the cash box that was recovered from the scene, the fingerprint
that he was able to obtain from the box, and demonstrated how it
matched with the right thumb print of Alfred Stratton, for up to
twelve points of agreement. At the request of a member of the jury
Collins also demonstrated the difference in a print caused by various
levels of pressure.
After Collins took the stand, the defence called
Dr. John Garson to the stand. They were hoping to discredit Collins'
testimony by establishing his credentials as one of Inspector Collins'
mentors, thus giving to the jury the impression that he was more of an
expert than Collins in the study of fingerprinting. As expected, he
testified that upon examination of the print taken from the cash box
and that of Alfred Stratton, he would say with certainty that they
were not in agreement.
However, the defence failed to reckon with the fact
that Garson was not an expert of fingerprinting but of anthropometry,
its rival field in identification. As a matter of fact, he spoke
against fingerprinting in the Belper Committee. And there was one more
thing of which they were unaware, which Muir intended to use to his
In cross-examination, Muir called into evidence two
letters, each written by Garson. One letter was to the Director of
Public Prosecutions, the other was to the solicitor to the defence.
Each letter said that Garson would be willing to testify for either
side in the trial, depending on who would pay him more.
MR. MUIR. — How can
you reconcile the writing of these two letters in the same day?
The witness (Dr. Garson). — I am an independent
The judge, Mr. Justice Channell, remarked that
after writing two such letters he would opine that Dr. Garson was an "absolutely
Having shattered the credibility of Dr. Garson as a
witness, the defence decided not to call Dr. Faulds as a witness,
fearing that Prosecutor Muir would have something to discredit him as
Conviction and execution
After each side had given their summations and the
jury given their final instructions, it took them a little more than
two hours of deliberation to find the Stratton brothers guilty of
murder, and they were sentenced to death by hanging.
The sentence was carried out on May 23, 1905.
Beavan, Colin. Fingerprints: The Origins of
Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science.
New York: Hyperion, 2001. ISBN 0-7868-6607-1