A Tale Of Two Wests; The Odd Doppelganger Case Behind Modern Fingerprinting
That strange day in 1903 when M.W. McClaughry checked Will West into Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, he was sure he’d already done so two years before.
There was only one problem. Despite every appearance to the contrary, Mr. West had never stepped foot in Leavenworth before that day.
Before that time, the accepted method for collecting prisoner data was complicated and had some holes in it. The West case exposed those holes so profoundly, the standard for the criminal justice system mandated an immediate overhaul.
The bizarre case of the Leavenworth doppelgangers will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. The case almost single-handedly pushed the point on fingerprinting every person arrested so we’d never repeat the same mess.
The Bertillon Method
The concept of similar features wasn’t foreign to anybody in 1903. The solution at the time was to collect measurements like height and weight along with other key features.
The method at the time was the Bertillon Method, adopted from French, named after the Parisian police officers who created the system.
As one can see from the picture above, the Bertillon system was complicated, time-consuming, but also not foolproof. But, it was the best we had at the time.
In the Leavenworth case, the Bertillon Method failed completely.
The Two Wests
McClaughry knew he’d already performed intake on Mr. West. He asked the man in front of him if he’d been there before, but West swore he had not. McCluaghry, whose job it was to know faces, was convinced he’d seen West before.
After some digging, he found the intake file for William West, the same name as the man standing in front of him.
The face and name were the same, but so was every metric in the Bertillon measurements.
Even Will West saw the resemblance himself but insisted it was not he.
“That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”
As it turned out, the man in the picture was, in fact, not this Will West. It was another man, imprisoned for murder two years prior.
The clincher was that the original William West was still at Leavenworth, serving a life sentence. As far as anyone knew, there was zero relationship between the two men.
The case caught the attention of the FBI, who immediately sought a better solution.
The World’s Fair
Unresolved with the Leavenworth Doppelganger case, McClaughry kept his ears to the ground for a solution.
In 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, he met a man named Sgt. John K. Ferrier, an officer with the Scotland Yard. Ferrier was touring with the crown jewels and was trusted with their safe keeping.
Ferrier explained to McClaughry how Scotland Yard had adopted the fingerprinting method of identification some three years earlier. The results, he lobbied, were accurate.
McClaughry took a lesson on fingerprinting, then brought it back to Leavenworth where they adopted the method. The success of that program didn’t take long to catch on, setting the standard for modern criminal forensics.