An Ignominius Distinction

Thomas Jennings was a typical burglar with a possible side interest of sexual assualt when he broke into the home of Clarence Hiller on the west side of Chicago in 1910. Burglars and rapists are as common as dirt in the annals of crime, and even those who move on to become murderers are a fairly mundane lot.
 
It wasn’t Jennings’s crime that earned him a place in the annals of important crimes. Instead, it was the method the police used to prove he was responsible for the murder of Clarence Hiller.
 
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, and for centuries by Japanese and Chinese officials. One such official, Sun T’zu advised provincial coroners on the use of fingerprints in the Sung Dynasty forensic handbook Hsi yuan chi lu which is most frequently translated as On the Washing Away of Wrongs. Sun’s work can be dated to at least 1247.
 
However, it took time for 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.
The story of the Wests is about 33 percent truth, 33 percent myth, and 34 percent we-don’t-know. But it’s required knowledge for students of true crime. Just be careful of your sources.
 
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 the home of the Pickens family 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,” the girl later testified.
 
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 blood.
 
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 Jennings’s shoes.
 
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 killing.
 
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 American court.
 
The Court, however, was unmoved by his arguments.
 
“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 it.”
 
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.