The First Fingerprint Trial

1910 0920 tribune clip
The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20, 1910

Clarice Hiller, 15, awoke a little after 2 a.m. to find a man standing in her bedroom doorway, his face illuminated by a burning match.

She thought it was her father but was puzzled that he was wearing a coat instead of his night clothes. As she raised up in bed, the match blew out, leaving the house in total darkness. Clarice heard footsteps move toward the bedroom in the front of the house where her parents and two youngest siblings slept, then pause before turning back toward her younger sister Florence’s room, going past her door again.

“Is that you, Papa?” she heard Florence’s sleepy voice.

There was a brief moment of stillness, then thirteen-year-old Florence screamed and the quiet house rumbled with a flurry of noises. Clarice heard her father’s footsteps pounding on the floor, exclaiming something about the hall light being out. She saw the spark of a match lit by her father, but it lasted only an instant as the intruder attacked. Clarice could see nothing in the darkness but heard the sound of bodies scuffling in the hallway in front of Florence’s room. She heard the thumps, thuds, and grunts of two scrambling bodies move past her doorway and toward the staircase, then down the stairs. Clarice leaped from her bed and ran into the hallway where she met her mother, Eva. They heard three muffled explosions coming from the bottom of the stairs just as the 2:20 train rumbled past the house and they could not hear if the prowler had left or not.

“I rushed to the head of the stairs when I heard them rolling down, but I could see nothing,” Eva Hiller said. “I feared to follow because I thought the burglar was still in the house. I screamed out the upstairs windows until help came.”

As she listened to her mother’s cry for help, Clarice carefully made her way down the darkened stairs to find her father lying at the bottom, his head near the front door.

“I found the door unlocked and people opened it as I got there,” Clarice would later tell a coroner’s jury. “I didn’t know then that papa was dead.”


1910 0920 tribune headlineAt approximately 2:30 a.m., September 19, 1910, ten minutes after the murder of Clarence Hiller, three Chicago patrolmen of the South Englewood station stood at the corner of 103rd Street and Vincennes Road waiting for a streetcar. A tall African-American man came up to the stop, panting hard. The policemen gave him the once-over, noticing that he had a bad cut on his hand and was spattered with blood, so they questioned him.

He said his name was William Jones and that he lived at 577 South State Street. He said he was on his way to Harvey to go to work and was running to catch a car, and that he was bleeding because he fell off of a previous car and injured himself. As it would turn out, the wound on his hand had been made by a grazing bullet after it passed through Hiller’s body while they grappled at the bottom of the stairs. A quick search revealed a .38 caliber revolver that had recently been fired, so they held him as a suspicious character and took him back to the station.

There they learned of the Hiller murder and that William Jones was really Thomas Jennings, over six feet tall and two hundred pounds. The papers did not report much on Jennings’s background, except that he was from Harvey and in 1906 was convicted of burglary and sent to Joliet. He gained parole in 1909, but arrested again for a burglary a few months later and sent back to Joliet for the parole violation. He stayed there until August 3, 1910, six weeks before the Hiller murder. He matched the description of a man suspected in the rash of burglaries in the South Side neighborhoods.

“I am satisfied we have the murderer of Mr. Hiller,” Police Lieutenant Charles M. Atkinson told the newspapers after an impromptu coroner’s inquest in the funeral parlor where the slain man’s body reposed. “He has been partially identified by Clarice Hiller, the slain man’s daughter, who recognized the coat he wore. Several other persons have identified him as the man who had been entering south side houses recently. A loaded revolver was found on him and two empty cartridges discovered in the Hiller hall are of the same make as the cartridges in the pistol and fit the weapon. We learned that the revolver he had purchased from a Clark street dealer a short time ago, although the [suspect] said he had had it a long time.”


Off-duty Chicago policeman Lloyd Beardsley was only two blocks away when he heard Eva Hiller’s screams. He reached the house at the same time the neighbors did and took charge of the scene.

An inspection of the premises showed the intruder had entered a kitchen window on the south side of the house by climbing upon a railing around a short stairs landing and taking out a screen. Finger marks were found in the railing and on the window sill, which had been freshly painted. Captain Michael P. Evans of the Chicago Police Bureau of Identification removed the section of railing and took it back to his office.

Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods had been up in arms for several weeks over a rash of break-ins, nearly all of them occurring in the early morning hours with families in their beds. Indeed, someone had tried to break into the home of Clarence D. Hiller, chief clerk of the local freight department of the Rock Island Railroad, on West 104th Street in late August, but as the intruder loosened a door screen, Hiller awoke to investigate and frightened the burglar away.

Chief of Police J.W. Ketcham of Morgan Park said that no less than six residences in Morgan Park and Tracy were entered by an intruder the night before the murder and that very night, the Hiller home was at least the fourth targeted by a thief. In the crowd that gathered outside the Hiller home, Ketcham found several residents who had put eyes on their intruder. So when he learned that a suspect was in custody at the South Englewood station, he sent them there to see if they could recognize the prowler in custody.

Maggie Anderson identified Jennings as the man who went into her Union Avenue house on September 18 and stole 90 cents. Elsie Heinze also identified him as the same man who came into her bedroom, also on Union Avenue, and ran away when she screamed for help.

The first residence entered that night belonged to a man named Halstead, who grabbed at the prowler as he was leaving by a window and caught his pocket, which tore in his hand. His description of the tear matched the rip in Jennings’s coat. John Nelson had also frightened away a prowler that night and Fred Norby heard the man in his house and shot at him twice.

The incidents moved closer and closer to the Hiller house. The McNabb home, separated from the Hillers by only a vacant lot, seemed to have been the burglar’s stop just before he was caught lurking in the Hiller house. The intruder went into a bedroom where Elizabeth McNabb and her daughter, Jessie, slept. Both woke up when he lighted a match and he bolted from the room and down the stairs. Mrs. McNabb ran to awaken her husband, and the family was still looking about the house for traces of the burglar when they heard the screams of Mrs. Hiller.

While no one got a good look at the man’s face, they all agreed that he was of the same build and dressed the same in the dark coat.


The Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1910
The Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1910

The use of fingerprints as forensic evidence was a science still in its infancy in 1910, so unknown and untested that newspapers put “finger print evidence” in quotation marks. Fingerprint evidence had never been admitted as evidence in a capital case prior to Jennings’s trial, which started in the first week of November. Consequently, defense attorney Walter G. Anderson objected strenuously to Judge Marcus Kavanaugh when Assistant State’s Attorney John E. Northrup introduced the piece of railing and enormous photos of the fingerprints left there and the impressions made from Thomas’s hands shortly after his arrest.

Anderson argued, “There is only one case on record in the world where fingerprints were attempted to be introduced in a criminal trial. That was an old English case and it was then held that a special law would have to be passed to legalize such evidence.”

Kavanaugh seemed eager to break new ground in the law. “If the theory of the prosecution is right,” he said, “the slayer of Hiller left his photograph, also wrote his signature on the house as he entered, so why is not the testimony of the expert competent?”

The judge sat inside the jury box while experts used immensely enlarged photographs to point out the 33 points that were identical to the prints left in the wet paint at the Hiller home and the left hand prints taken from the defendant on the night of his arrest.

“I made a careful study of the fingerprints left behind by the murderer,” Captain Evans said, “and find that they are identical with those of Jennings, a criminal with a long record. There is no possible doubt that Jennings is the guilty man.”

Edward Foster, chief of the police identification bureau of the dominion of Canada at Ottawa, gave his concurring opinion. Foster had been studying fingerprinting as a superior alternative to the Bertillon system of body measuring since 1904, and would soon lead the opening of Canada’s Fingerprint Bureau, the first repository of fingerprints in North America, maintained by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The state’s expert witnesses included Mary E. Holland, a writer and editor for The Detective, a professional police journal. She had become fascinated by fingerprint identification when she met Inspector John K. Ferrier of the New Scotland Yard during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The inspector gave demonstrations of fingerprint identification at the London Police Exhibit and conducted a class for nine pupils who would spread the fingerprint gospel in America. Mrs. Holland was one of those pupils. She would be the first person to manufacture and sell fingerprint kits in the United States and before Jennings’s trial, set up systems for the Washington, D.C., Police Department and the U.S. War Department.

William Evans, the captain’s son who also worked at the Chicago Police Bureau of Identification, agreed that the prints were identical with fourteen points on the forefinger, eleven on the middle and eight on the third.

Anderson pushed his skepticism of the evidence too far and inadvertently damaged his client’s case during Evans’s testimony.

Standing in front of the jury box, he asked Evans if he could lift a fingerprint impression from the railing he was leaning on. Evans rose from the witness stand and felt the rail. The surface was rough, and he told Anderson he could not take an impression from it.

“Can you take it on this book?” he asked, touching his finger to a page.

“Yes, I can,” Evans said, and in full view of the jury sprinkled powder on the spot Anderson had touched and lifted a clean fingerprint impression.

CLICK HERE to read an interesting sidebar to the trial of Thomas Jennings, when things got a little out of hand during closing arguments.

Largely on the strength of the fingerprint testimony, it only took the jury two hours to return a verdict of guilty and a recommendation for the death penalty.

Though he did not testify, George Porteous, a criminologist and student of Alphonse Bertillon who introduced his mentor’s system of identification in the United States twenty years previously, followed the case closely and attended the trial. He declared that much of the evidence against the killer was circumstantial but the fingerprints were definitive. “If Jennings had worn gloves the night he entered the Hiller’s house, I don’t think he would have been convicted even though he had a criminal record.”

Although it seemed a foregone conclusion that Jennings was guilty and doomed for the hangman’s gallows, criminal attorneys throughout the state of Illinois chipped in to pay for his appeals so that the courts would rule on the admissibility of fingerprint evidence, so it took some time for the case to make its way the system.

Jennings’s first eleventh-hour reprieve came June 16, 1911, when Governor Charles Deneen granted a stay of execution so the case could be argued before the Illinois Supreme Court. Sheriff Zimmer had the Cook County Gallows ready to go on Friday, July 14, 1911, when the court agreed to hear the case and attorney F.L. Barnett obtained a writ of error from Justice Carter because there was no law in effect covering fingerprint evidence.

The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 22, 1911
The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 22, 1911

On December 22, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled set the precedent: “When photography was first introduced it was seriously questioned whether pictures thus created could properly be introduced in evidence. But this method of proof as well as by means of X rays [sic] and the microscope is now admitted without question. 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 a general and common use that courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it.

“Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible with other proof as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to identity of a person 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 fixed the date of Thomas Jennings’s execution: February 16, 1912.


CLICK HERE to read the clipping of “FOUR MUST HANG, TWO GIVEN LIFE IN SPEEDY TRIAL,” Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1911.

That day, Sheriff Michael Zimmer prepared the gallows to hang five men, the largest sanctioned necktie party in Cook County history. The youngest of them, Thomas Schultz, was only 19, another local record. Jennings would be last. The four thugs going before him had been convicted at the same time for the robbery and murder of truck farmer Fred W. Guelzow on October 20, 1911. Six young men ambushed Guelzow on a remote road and threw his body in the bushes. The bandits abandoned the wagon and were arrested while trying to sell Guelzow’s horses. Two were underage and given life sentences.

During the same hours the sheriff was occupied with hanging them two at a time, attorneys argued in front of Federal District Court Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis that their client’s constitutional rights had been violated by being forced to give his finger impressions, essentially forcing him to testify against himself. Landis had told Sheriff Zimmer to save Jennings for last, to put the execution on hold until he could make a decision, which came just before noon.

Landis, who would later be called on to clean up major league baseball after the infamous Black Sox scandal as the league’s first commissioner, ruled that fingerprint evidence is merely a part of the general physical identification of a suspect, the same as a foot print or a photograph. As soon as he adjourned court, he telephoned the sheriff and told him to proceed with the hanging.

Fifteen minutes later, a deputy and a priest carried a weak-kneed Thomas Jennings to the gallows to meet his fate.



Chicago Daily Tribune: Slain by Robber; Suburb in Alarm, September 20, 1910; Jury Says Negro Killed Hiller, September 28, 1910; Three Witnesses Identify Negro, November 4, 1910; Finger Marks Shown Jury, November 5, 1910; Match Hands to Hang a Man, November 6, 1910; Prints of Fingers Dooms Murderer, November 11, 1910; Again Stays Death Sentence, July 14, 1911; Finger Prints as Evidence Upheld, December 22, 1911.

FDAIA News: “The First American Fingerprint Instructor,” by Norman R. Smith, April-June 1999.

The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois): Finger Prints Doom Jennings to Death, November 11, 1910; Five Men Pay Death Penalty for Crimes, February 17, 1912.

New Castle (Pennsylvania) Herald: Five Murderers Go to the Gallows Today for Brutal Crimes, February 16, 1912.

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