The Stratton Brothers
The case of the Farrow Murders, involving brothers Alfred and Albert Stratton, is infamous as being the first instance of a conviction for murder in the United Kingdom based on fingerprint evidence.
On the morning of 27th March 1905 in Deptford, 16-year-old William Jones visited the paint shop of Thomas Farrow, 71, and his wife Ann, 65, but found the shop closed. The couple lived in a flat above the shop, and it was very unusual for the store to still be closed at this hour. Jones knocked on the door numerous times and, when he received no response, peered through the window. He was alarmed by the sight of numerous chairs knocked over so went for help. He approached a local resident, Louis Kidman, and the two forced their way into the shop around the back of the building. Once inside, they discovered the beaten dead body of Mr Farrow in a pool of blood and the unconscious body of his wife.
Mrs Farrow was rushed to hospital and the police were called. Unfortunately she died a few days later. There were no signs of forced entry, however an empty cash box was found on the floor of the dishevelled flat, suggesting a burglary had occurred. Further examination of the scene turned up two black masks made from stockings. Police speculated that the attackers had knocked on the door in the middle of the night or early in the morning and, when Mr Farrow opened the door, attacked him and barged inside, proceeding to attack his wife in the bedroom.
The cash box was examined and a greasy fingerprint found on the inside, at which point the box was carefully collected and transported to Scotland Yard’s Fingerprinting Bureau. Detective Inspector Charles Collins, who was heading the Bureau at the time, examined the print and established it was most likely from the thumb of an individual. The print was compared with those of the two victims, the officers at the crime scene, and the 80,000+ sets of prints kept on file by the Bureau, but no match was found.
With the fingerprint evidence trail cold, police began interviewing possible witnesses to the crime. Fortunately numerous individuals claimed seeing two men leaving the Farrows’ shop early the morning of the murder, and one witness was able to identify one of the men as Alfred Stratton. Alfred and his brother Albert did not have criminal records, but they were well-known by police for their involvement in criminal circles. The witness descriptions matched the two brothers, and Alfred’s girlfriend informed police that he had given away a set of clothes worn that day, clothing that was described by witnesses as being worn by a man leaving the crime scene. Furthermore, he had asked her for a pair of stockings. Albert’s girlfriend was also interviewed and confessed that Albert had returned home that morning with unexplained money.
The brothers were arrested and their fingerprints taken. When police compared the collected prints with the crime scene thumb print, it was a clear match to Alfred. However despite the evidence, the defence attempted to prepare a solid case to prove the brothers were innocent. They called in Dr John Garson as an expert witness. Garson was previously Collins’ teacher and thus would be considered more of an expert, however he was actually an expert in anthropometry rather than fingerprinting. Furthermore, it later emerged that Garson had been in touch with both prosecution and defence, and had declared that he would testify for whichever side paid him more. This was enough to discredit him and render him useless as an expert witness.
Prosecution called over 40 witnesses to the stand. However despite the number of witnesses used, the flaws in the defence’s case, and the success of fingerprinting in the case of Harry Jackson, the technique was still not trusted by the public and the jury, particularly problematic with the fingerprint being the only solid piece of evidence linking the brothers to the crime scene. Detective Inspector Collins spoke as an expert witness, explaining how fingerprinting worked and informing the jury that of the 800,000+ individual digit impressions held on file by Scotland Yard, he had never found two different impressions to appear the same. He produced enlarged images of the thumbprints and identified the points of similarities.
This was enough to convince a jury, and in May 1905, the two brothers were charged with murder and hanged.
Black, S. Thompson, T. 2007. Forensic Human Identification: An Introduction. Florida: CRC Press.
Lee, H C. Gaensslen, R E. 2001. Advances in Fingerprint Technology. Florida: CRC Press.