Thomas Jennings – 1910

By | November 12, 2016

“The circumstances of the…conviction were dramatic enough to furnish the ‘big scene’ in a sensational novel”


The first murder in America solved by fingerprints occurred shortly after 2am on 19 September 1910 when Clarence B. Hiller and his wife were awoken by a strange noise. Mr Hiller got out of bed and, telling his wife to be quiet, went to investigate. At the top of the stairs he spotted a shadowy figure. He called out and rushed at the figure. Overbalancing, both men fell head first down the staircase.

As they fell, two shots rang out and Mr Hiller was killed. The dark-clad figure fled into the night. Less than 1.5 km (1 mi) away, four off-duty policemen were waiting for a streetcar to take them home when they spotted a man acting suspiciously. They went to investigate and found a loaded pistol in his pocket and fresh bloodstains on his clothes. They immediately arrested the man and took him to the police station where he was identified as Thomas Jennings. At the station the police were told about the murder of Clarence B. Hiller. Investigating officers found four fingerprints in fresh paint, which matched Jennings’s fingerprints with 33 points of identity, and Jennings’s revolver cartridges were identical to three found beside Mr Hiller’s body.


Chicago, Illinois, USA


Monday 19 September 1910


Thomas Jennings went on trial charged with the murder of Clarence B. Hiller but the defendant’s lawyers insisted that fingerprint evidence was not recognized by the laws of Illinois and should therefore be excluded from the proceedings. The judge disagreed and allowed the evidence. Jennings was found guilty and sentenced to death. His lawyers appealed again, objecting to the inclusion of the fingerprints. On 21 December 1911, after considerable legal wrangling, the Supreme Court of Illinois approved the legality of fingerprint evidence and the death sentence was upheld. The Chicago Daily Tribune stated: “The circumstances of the Negro’s conviction were dramatic enough to furnish the ‘big scene’ in a sensational novel.

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