Argentina's Role in the History of Fingerprinting

Cool Mint Fingerprint by Jack Spades, on FlickrAs part of the complicated process to obtain permanent residency in Argentina, I must submit a criminal background check from the FBI to Argentine immigration officials. In order to request this document, I had to be fingerprinted at the local police station, a task I conveniently took care of while back visiting the U.S. in August. With ink-stained fingers the order of the day, the fingerprinting process proved a rather messy affair to be sure, although not a terribly complicated one.

Fingerprinting methods – both traditional "ink and roll" and digital – now form part of standard procedures at government and law enforcement agencies around the world. While DNA testing has revolutionized the field of forensics, fingerprint analysis remains one of the most reliable crime-fighting and personal identification tools available to the police. In fact, the use of fingerprints to nab criminals dates back over a century.

But did you know that Argentina – and even more unlikely, my adopted home of Necochea – played a pivotal role in the history of fingerprinting? It all boils down to a good, old-fashioned murder mystery, but first, here's some background.

Juan Vucetich [photo used under Creative Commons license]One of the pioneers of fingerprinting, Juan Vucetich, a Croatian-born police investigator and official who immigrated to Argentina, made a significant contribution to the development of fingerprint science. In 1891, based on work by Sir Francis Galton, Vucetich developed a fingerprint classification and filing system for both criminal justice and civil applications, including an immigrant tracking system. Vucetich's system proved highly useful, when just months following its creation, an Argentine detective employed the new method to solve the very first criminal case in the world using fingerprint evidence, right here in Necochea.

Here's an excerpt of "South Atlantic Crossings: Fingerprints, Science, and the State in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina" from the American Historical Review, an excellent article about Argentina's contributions to the science of fingerprinting, which explains the details of this history-making case:

"In the course of one of the most infamous murder cases in late nineteenth-century Argentina, prosecutors obtained in 1892 the world's first criminal conviction based on fingerprint evidence. Immersed in the ghoulish facts of the case, in which two small children were stabbed to death in their beds, the coastal villagers of Necochea in Buenos Aires Province hardly noted this high-water mark of transatlantic science. But it was from here that the first practical applications of fingerprinting burst forth, a vital eddy in the currents of people, ideas, and technologies surging across the Atlantic at the turn of the century.

The case had been initially vexing: no one had seen the crime, and interrogations had yielded contradictory evidence. Amid the gore, however, was a single bloody fingerprint left on a doorjamb. How, short of finding blood on the suspect, could a match be proved?

Several days into the investigation, the detective in charge, Eduardo M. Alvarez, shocked observers with a novel brand of evidence, a method of linking finger marks to police records of known or suspected criminals. He demonstrated a match between the bloody mark and the prints of the children's mother, Francesca Rojas, who promptly confessed to the crime."

Vucetich went on to publish a book outlining his methods entitled Dactiloscopía Comparada (Comparative Dactyloscopy), and his fingerprinting classification system eventually gained acceptance throughout Latin America and Europe. The Vucetich system is still in use today, primarily in South America.

If you're interested in learning more about the history of fingerprinting, click here for information from Interpol.

Random side note: "Tocar el piano/pianito" is a slang way of saying "to be fingerprinted" in Spanish (literally "to play the [little] piano," as the action of being fingerprinted bears resemblance to tickling the ivories.)

[Photo credit: Jack Spades, Wikipedia Creative Commons]

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