March 27, 1905: The Stratton Brothers, The First be Convicted on Fingerprint Evidence, Commit Murder


WHAT HAPPENED?


On March 27, 1905, Thomas Farrow and his wife, Ann, were murdered by 2 masked men in the early morning. Those men were eventually identified as brothers Alfred Edward Stratton and Albert Ernest Stratton.


The Stratton brothers were the first men to ever be convicted in Britain for murder based on the use of fingerprint evidence. The brothers were executed on May 23, 1095, for their crimes.

THE NEW AND NOVEL FORENSIC TECHNOLOGY: THE FINGERPRINT


At 8:30 AM on Monday, March 27, 1905, a man named William Jones went to Chapman's Oil and Colour shop, where he worked. When he arrived, he found the shop closed, which was unusual. Knowing that something was probably wrong for the shop to be closed and shuttered at this time, he tried knocking on the flat above the shop, where owner Thomas Farrow, age 71, and his wife Ann lived. He did not get a response, but peeked in and saw things knocked over that concerned him.


He ran for help and found a worker from a nearby store who helped him force his way into the shop. Once they were inside, they found the dead body of Thomas Farrow on the ground, and the barely breathing body of Ann in the couple's bed upstairs. They had both been beaten. Police were called, and Ann was taken to the hospital.


Police found no evidence of forced entry, despite the messy scene that was in the shop. They were, however, able to identify the motive: Robbery. Monday was deposit day at the local bank, and the empty cash box on the floor was all they needed to determine that whoever did this was after the money.


In a classic early 1900s forensic blunder, Sergeant Albert Atkinson picked up the money box with his bare hands and moved it aside to ensure no one would trip over it. Some new guns, including Chief Inspector Fredrick Fox, Assistant Commissioner of Crime Melville MacNaughten, the Metropolitan Police and the head of the Criminal Investigation Department, took over after that.


The police were also able to determine that Thomas and Ann had been attacked separately, and that there were 2 men involved because of the black masks they left behind. Because both victims were in their pajamas, they assumed the assailants had tricked them into opening the door while half asleep, and he was attacked upon entry. Then, they went upstairs, attacked his wife, and took the money. Blood patterns also revealed that Thomas had likely regained consciousness form his initial attack, but was killed after he got up and moved.


When MacNaughten learned of the cash box, he examined it and found a greasy smudge that looked like a fingerprint. He had learned 5 years earlier that fingerprints were going to be the hot new way to identify criminals, and he thought this might be a good case to test out the technique. He brought it to the Fingerprinting Bureau at Scotland Yard.


The Bureau was established in 1901, and had proven worthy when it helped to convict a criminal in 1902. It was run by Charles Stockley Collins, a detective inspector who was known as the fingerprint expert of his time. However, there were still some issues and kinks to work out with the fingerprinting technology, and knew that they could face a lot of public scrutiny if they tried to use such a new, novel way to convict a criminal in such a high profile murder case. They also knew that even if they were able to identify the attackers via the fingerprint, they would still need more to convict a jury.


Despite the Bureau's 80-90,000 sets of prints on file, there was no match for the fingerprint they found. They would first need a suspect, and then they could compare. They had planned to get a description from Ann, but she died a few days after the attack without ever regaining consciousness.


In order to find the robbers, the police interviewed many potential witnesses, and there were many. While talking to the various people who saw 2 men walking around the area at around the right time, a few confidently identified one of the men as Alfred Stratton.


With no criminal record but still on the police radar for having "contacts in the criminal underworld", Alfred became a suspect. His brother, Albert, was also known to police and descriptions from witnesses matched hi. Alfred was officially identified when his girlfriend, Annie Cromarty, told the police that he had asked her for an old pair of stockings, which is what the masks were made out of. Based on all of this, the brothers were arrested and taken into custody, and fingerprinted. The right thumb of Alfred Stratton matched the fingerprint on the cash box perfectly.

TRIAL & TESTIMONY


Even with a rock solid piece of evidence in the fingerprint, they knew that the case would stand or fall on that alone. If it was undermined or thrown out, they wouldn't have anything else.


Fingerprinting pioneer Henry Faulds was a help to the defense because he claimed that one finger print was not reliable enough. Because the prosecution only had the one fingerprint, they retained him as their expert witness. The defense also called George Garson, who did not believe in the use of fingerprints as a means of identification. Both men were "professional rivals" of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who helped establish the Fingerprint Bureau.


The prosecution called over 40 witnesses to place the brothers at the scene of the crime. He was hoping that the consistency of so many people who saw 2 men of their description at the crime scene around time time of the crime would help reinforce the fingerprint evidence. Some witnesses were able to provide a general description but not a positive identification, while others were sure it was them. The pathologist who did the post-mortem exams on the bodies said their murders were conducted with weapons similar to the tools the brothers owned.


Albert's girlfriend, Kate Wade, testified that he was not with her at the time of the murder, and he normally was. Annie, Alfred's girlfriend, also testified that he had come home that morning with a lot of money and he threw out the clothes that he was wearing when he saw the newspaper report of the murder and the descriptions of the assailants and what they were wearing. She also testified that he told her to tell police he was with her that night.


But the defense tried to provide plausible explanations for all of the circumstantial evidence that the prosecution provided. They had Alfred take the stand, and he told the jury that he heard his brother tapping on the window in need of money. He said he would check for some, and when he came back, his brother was gone. He went out looking for him at around 2:30 in the morning, which is why the brothers would have been seen together around that time.


The prosecution summoned William Gittings who worked at the jail where the brothers were awaiting trial, and he recalled a conversation with Albert who had said he thought his brother would get strung up and he himself would serve about 10 years because his brother brought him into it. He hoped the jury would consider that a confession.


Next, Inspector Collins took the stand, an expert in fingerprinting. He explained to the jury how fingerprint evidence worked. Next, defense called Dr. John Garson, who said he was not in agreement with Collins' analysis. However, the defense failed to explain that Garson was not even a fingerprint expert, but an anthropmetry expert, which were considered rival fields of identification. The prosecution was also able to determine that Garson had sent letters to both the prosecution and defense and offered to testify on either side, depending on who would pay him more. This resulted in the judge calling him an "absolutely untrustworthy" witness.


After both sides gave their final arguments, the jury deliberated for only 2 hours before finding the brothers guilty of murder. They were sentenced to death by hanging, and were executed on May 23, 1095.


Growing up watching so many crime shows, and remaining extremely interested in true crime for most of my adult life, it is really crazy to think of a time that fingerprint evidence was considered a new forensic breakthrough, but in 1905, it was. And that breakthrough lead to the conviction of 2 men who took the lives of an innocent couple so they could take their money. To this day, forensic breakthroughs continue as people work to find better and more efficient ways to get the right people behind bars. But this was one of the first breakthroughs, and the crime happened 115 years ago today.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratton_Brothers_case

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