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Alfred Stratton (born c. 1883) and his brother Albert Ernest (born c. 1885, both died May 23, 1905) were the first men to be convicted in Great Britainmarker for murder based on fingerprint evidence. The case, otherwise known as the Mask Murders (due to the black stocking-top masks that had been left at the scene of the crime), the Deptford Murders (due to the location) or the Farrow Murders (the last name of the victims), is widely regarded as the case that truly launched forensic science.

The crime

On Monday, March 27, 1905, at 8:30 am, William Jones went to Chapman's Oil and Colour Shop on High Street in Deptfordmarker where he worked. When he arrived at the shop he found it closed and shuttered, which he found very unusual. The manager of the paint shop Thomas Farrow, aged 71, lived with his wife, Ann, aged 65, in the flat above the shop and he was not in the habit of having the shop still closed at such a late hour. Unable to open the door, he tried knocking but since he did not get any response from either Mr. and Mrs. Farrow he peeked through a window and saw that there were chairs knocked over.

Alarmed at what he saw, he ran for help and found Louis Kidman, a local resident who worked in a nearby store, and the two men forced their way into the shop. It was not long before they found the body of Mr. Farrow on the ground dead, while Mrs. Farrow was found barely alive but unconscious in the couple's bed in the upstairs flat. Both bore the signs of being repeatedly beaten. A doctor and the police were called and Mrs. Farrow was taken to hospital.

The investigation

Despite the disarray within the shop, the police found no signs of forced entry. It was shortly determined that robbery was the motive: Jones told the police that Mr. Farrow would collect the week's earnings and deposit them to a local bank every Monday, and an empty cash box was found on the floor, which was estimated to contain about £10, a considerable amount of money at that time. To ensure the doctor would not trip over it, Sergeant Albert Atkinson pushed it aside with his bare hands. It was at this point that Chief Inspector Frederick Fox and Melville MacNaghten, the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and head of the Criminal Investigation Department took over the case.

Aside from the lack of forced entry as well as the empty cash box, it was clear that Mr. and Mrs. Farrow were attacked separately and the discovery of two black masks fashioned from stockings that were left at the scene indicated that there were two men involved. Since they were in their night clothes, the police had speculated that Mr. Farrow was deceived into opening the door while he was still half asleep. He was immediately attacked, but was still conscious enough to go after the robbers, and was hit again. His assailants went up to the upstairs flat, attacked Mrs. Farrow, located the cash box, and fled with the money. However, based on the separate pools of blood at the scene, it was determined that Mr. Farrow had again regained consciousness, and this time the men killed him and afterwards washed their hands in a nearby basin.

A greasy smudge on the cash box

When MacNaghten was told of the empty cash box, he chose to examine it. He noticed that on the underside of the box's inner tray, there was a greasy smudge which appeared to be a fingerprint. As a member of the Belper Committee which recommended the use of fingerprints as a method for identification five years before, he wondered if this might be a case to test out this new technique. He used his handkerchief to carefully pick up the cash box, had it wrapped in paper and took it in to the fledgling Fingerprinting Bureau at Scotland Yardmarker.

Established on July 1, 1901, the Fingerprint Bureau had proven its worth since the conviction of Harry Jackson for burglary due to fingerprint evidence a year later. It was now headed by Detective Inspector Charles Stockley Collins who was regarded as the foremost Englishmarker fingerprint expert of his time. Despite its earlier successes, especially in identifying previously convicted criminals who tried to pass themselves off pseudonymously, the technique was still considered unwieldy and both men knew that they were risking public ridicule due to the intense scrutiny that a murder case would generate. Furthermore, even if they succeeded in identifying the owner of the fingerprint, they still needed to convince a potential jury sufficiently to convict.

Detective Inspector Collins examined the print thoroughly and determined that the print was made through perspiration and appeared to have been left by the thumb, probably from the right hand. He compared it with those of the Farrows and that of Detective Sergeant Atkinson and was satisfied that the print did not belong to any of those people. Although the Bureau had 80,000-90,000 sets of prints on file, there was no match on any of them as well, which meant that they would need to find a suspect to compare it with. The initial hope of the police was that Mrs. Farrow would give a description of her assailants, but she died in hospital on March 31 without regaining consciousness.

Positive identification and arrest

In an effort to identify the robbers, the police resorted to the usual practice of interviewing potential witnesses to the crime. Fortunately there was no shortage of them, for many saw two men — one of them dressed in a dark brown suit and cap, the other in a dark blue serge suit and bowler hat — leave the paint shop at around 7:30 in the morning of March 27. Two of these witnesses — a professional boxer named Henry John Littlefield and a local girl named Ellen Stanton — positively identified the one in the dark brown suit as Alfred Stratton.

Although he did not have a criminal record, Alfred Stratton was known to the police as being a "vagabond" and was known to have contacts in the criminal underworld. Alfred's brother Albert was also a known police character, and the description of the other man given by the witnesses matched him. The identification of Alfred was apparently confirmed when Alfred's girlfriend Annie Cromarty told the police that he had gotten rid of his dark brown coat and changed his shoes the day after the murder; she also recalled him asking for a pair of old stockings. Based on this lead, warrants for the arrest of the pair were issued, and they were taken to custody on April 2 and fingerprinted. Based on a tip by Annie Cromarty, police were able to recover £4 that was buried near a local waterworks.

When Detective Inspector Collins received the two sets of fingerprints taken from the Stratton brothers, he compared them to the print on the cash box, and he concluded that it exactly matched with the right thumbprint of Alfred Stratton. The brothers were charged with murder and the trial set in May 5, 1905 at the Old Baileymarker.


When the Stratton brothers were brought to trial, MacNaghten, Collins, and Richard Muir, the prosecutor for the Crown, knew that they would face an uphill battle. Since the fingerprint was the only tangible evidence that they had, the case would stand or fall on that evidence, and the defence would try their best to undermine it. Fingerprinting pioneer Henry Faulds was a vocal detractor, because he had the mistaken notion that one fingerprint match was unreliable; thus the defence retained him as a witness. Also set to testify for the defence was Dr. John George Garson, who advocated anthropometry over fingerprinting as a means of identification. Both men were professional rivals of Edward Henry, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who established the Fingerprint Bureau and was responsible for the acceptance of fingerprinting in the British legal system; he was also in attendance.

The prosecution called over 40 witnesses to the stand. Muir and his team wanted to place the two defendants at the scene of the crime, and despite Muir's inherent distrust of eyewitness testimony, he was counting on their consistency to reinforce the fingerprint evidence. Although some of them like Henry Alfred Jennings, a local milkman, were not able to make a positive identification of the defendants despite being consistent in their general appearance, others like Henry Littlefield and Ellen Stanton were positive in their identification of Alfred Stratton. The Home Office pathologist who did the post-mortem on the Farrows told the court that the injuries on the Farrows were consistent with being inflicted by weapons similar to the tools that the brothers had in their possession.

Kate Wade, Albert Stratton's girlfriend, testified that Albert was not with her during the night of the murder, and he usually stayed with her. In addition, Annie Cromarty, Alfred's girlfriend, testified that Alfred had come home on the morning of March 27 with a good amount of money without explaining where he obtained it; she also added that he threw out the clothes that he wore that day when he saw the newspaper accounts of the murder, and that Alfred asked her to tell the police, or anyone else who asked, that he was with her the night of the murder.

However, the defense counsels, H.G. Rooth, Curtis Bennett and Harold Morris, were able to give plausible alternative explanations, which would tend to cast doubt on the prosecution's witnesses, so much so that they were confident enough to have Alfred Stratton take the stand. He testified that at about 2:30 in the morning of the 27th, he was awakened by his brother Albert who was tapping on the window and wanted to borrow money from him for a night's lodging. He replied that he would check that if he had some, and when Alfred came back to tell his brother that he had none, Albert was gone. He went out and found his brother some distance away, in Regent Street. It was there that they were seen by several witnesses who testified having seen them at around that time. He told his brother that he had no money and offered to let him stay for the night. Albert agreed and slept on the floor, and the brothers stayed until 9 in the morning. He explained the £4 that was recovered by the police as money which he won over a boxing contest a couple of months before. He buried the money three weeks prior to the murders and he intended to give the money to Annie Cromarty.

Muir had anticipated this tactic by the defence, and before calling Inspector Collins, he summoned William Gittings, who worked in the jail where the Stratton brothers were confined awaiting trial. Gittings related a conversation that he had with Albert Stratton, who said, "I reckon he (Alfred) will get strung up and I shall get about ten years…He has led me into this." Muir hoped to impress the jury into thinking that that statement would be counted as a confession. Then he called Inspector Collins to the stand.

Expert testimony

It was Muir's intention to first establish Inspector Collins' credentials as an expert in the field of fingerprinting before the jury, then explain, in layman's terms, how fingerprinting worked as a means of identification. Collins was then made to discuss the fingerprint involved in the case. He showed the jury the cash box that was recovered from the scene, the fingerprint that he was able to obtain from the box, and demonstrated how it matched with the right thumb print of Alfred Stratton, for up to twelve points of agreement. At the request of a member of the jury Collins also demonstrated the difference in a print caused by various levels of pressure.

After Collins took the stand, the defence called Dr. John Garson to the stand. They were hoping to discredit Collins' testimony by establishing his credentials as one of Inspector Collins' mentors, thus giving portraying to the jury that he was more of an expert than Collins in the study of fingerprinting. As expected, he testified that upon examination of the print taken from the cash box and that of Alfred Stratton, he would say with certainty that they were not in agreement.

However, the defence failed to reckon the fact that Garson was not an expert of fingerprinting but of anthropometry, its rival field in identification. As a matter of fact, he spoke against fingerprinting in the Belper Committee. And there was one more thing of which they were unaware, which Muir intended to use to his advantage.

In cross-examination, Muir called into evidence two letters, each written by Garson. One letter was to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the other was to the solicitor to the defence. Each letter said that Garson would be willing to testify for either side in the trial, depending on who would pay him more.

MR. MUIR. — How can you reconcile the writing of these two letters in the same day?

The witness (Dr. Garson). — I am an independent witness.

The judge, Mr. Justice Channell, remarked that after writing two such letters he would opine that Dr. Garson was an "absolutely untrustworthy" witness.

Having shattered the credibility of Dr. Garson as a witness, the defence decided not to call Dr. Faulds as a witness, fearing that Prosecutor Muir would have something to discredit him as well.

Conviction and execution

After each side had given their summations and the jury given their final instructions, it took them a little more than two hours of deliberation to find the Stratton brothers guilty of murder, and they were sentenced to death by hanging.

The sentence was carried out on May 23, 1905.

Further reading

  • Beavan, Colin. Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science. New York: Hyperion, 2001.

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