Surprising Facts about Fingerprinting

Fingerprint records. Photographed on 24 November 1924, in the Fingerprint Division of the Bonus Bureau, Washington DC, USA.

I knew that fingerprinting was new in America in the 1920s, when my mysteries take place, so I was careful not to place too much reliance on such new technology, technology that was slow to catch on in many parts of the country. But I recently learned some surprising facts about fingerprint identification. Such as–

The first country to use fingerprint classification for law enforcement was–surprise!–Argentina in 1892.

The first fingerprint bureau was established in British India! In 1897 in Calcutta. England adopted the practice and established a fingerprint branch at Scotland Yard in 1901.

The U.S. Army was the first place in America to use fingerprints for identification, in 1905, but not for criminal identification.

In the U.S., the use of fingerprints first resulted in a criminal conviction in 1911.

My books, set in 1924 and 1925, coincide with the year Congress established the Identification Division of the FBI in 1924.

I was not surprised to learn that most of the actual identification work was done by women.

 

 

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Published in: on August 30, 2017 at 1:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes) Part II

The constant cat-and-mouse chase of rumrunners by the Coast Guard led to a sudden evolution of power boat technology. Speed was essential–for both sides! The Coast Guard tried to develop new, faster boats so they could outrun the smugglers, but there was one huge problem. When they did, federal law required them to make the specifications public so that any boatyard could bid on the construction contract . . . and, you guessed it, that let the smugglers in on the new design, which they then copied.

When Congress extended the three-mile limit (territorial waters) to twelve miles in an attempt to force party boats and smugglers out of business, they inadvertently made it even harder for the tiny Coast Guard, which now had to patrol a much larger expanse of sea.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Rumrunners on the Seas (and Great Lakes)

During Prohibition, the federal government tried to prevent illegal booze coming into the country on boats by turning enforcement over to the Coast Guard. Sadly, the Coast Guard was very small and very ineffectual. Any boats they seized were then sold at public auction, almost always back to the original owner, who was usually the only bidder and who continued with his import business. One example, cited in Last Call, is that of the Underwriter, a ship seized in the Long Island Sound 4 times in one year and auctioned 4 times, returning to rumrunning each time.

Making matters worse, the Coast Guard seamen were paid $36 a month–even in the 1920s, this was lousy pay–which meant it was laughably easy to bribe them to look the other way, just as the smugglers did with policemen. During the early years of Prohibition, there were so few Coast Guard boats, and those that existed lacked the power of the faster, rumrunners’ boats, that any interference in the illegal importation of liquor was minimal. That’s why, in THE IMPERSONATOR, one of my characters can run liquor from Canada to Oregon in a yacht without any interference from the Coast Guard. 

 

Published in: on April 23, 2017 at 1:48 pm  Comments (1)  

Identical twins made successful moonshiners

People often ask where writers get their ideas. The answer is “everywhere.” Here’s one specific example:

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I read this marvelous article in the Richmond newspaper about twin brothers who made moonshine in the 1950s and 60s when it was illegal in Virginia. Being identical twins helped when they reached a courtroom, because witnesses couldn’t identify the accused for certain. Which brother was it? They couldn’t say for sure. That gives me a good idea for a plot device: having identical twin bootleggers beat the rap because no one could tell them apart. Read the whole article here:

http://www.richmond.com/life/bill-lohmann/article_ab06ec1e-04a9-5914-8d81-82e6a71a9d64.html

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Published in: on January 28, 2017 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Good Bootlegger: Roy Olmsted

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When I created my bootlegger character David, I had in mind the real bootlegger, Roy Olmsted. I learned about him in Daniel Okrent’s LAST CALL: “Olmsted had entered public life as a promising member of the Seattle Police Department, praised by the department’s very dry chief as ‘quick and responsive . . . bright and competent.’ But Olmsted’s competence extended beyond ordinary police work, and while still a member of the department . . . he began running liquor from Canada. Roy Olmsted was handsome, personable, intelligent, and remarkably ethical. He never diluted his imports or blended them with industrial alcohol as so many other bootleggers did, and he dealt in such volume that he was able to undersell every other bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. . . he ‘avoided the sordid behavior of others in the same business–no murder, no narcotics, no rings or prostitution or gambling’–and as a result, ‘many people could not regard him as an authentic criminal.'”

What happened to Roy? Like my fictional David, he served time in prison–four years. President Roosevelt later pardoned him. Not sure whether a pardon is in David’s future . . .

Published in: on December 30, 2016 at 9:07 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Houdini as an author

Coincidentally, the great magician, Harry Houdini, wrote a book that was published in 1924, the year that the mystery I am currently writing takes place. And it pertains directly to my topic: Spiritualism.

41WET3XBKHL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_Houdini spent most of his adult like debunking Spiritualism, a quasi-religious movement that is based on communication with the dead through mediums. It is, of course, shot through with fakes, then and now. Houdini’s thirty-five-year mission was to “out” the fakes whenever he could. One of the ways he did this was by writing a book, A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS.

To my delight, Houdini also describes many of the tricks that he discovered mediums using. I’ve incorporated some of those in my novel, which concerns a young woman who works as a shill for a Spiritualist medium. 

MV5BYTIxY2M2YjgtNjQzOS00ZTI3LWFhYTMtNDAxMDU1MjZkN2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTU3NTAwNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Again, coincidentally, there is a new series coming up this week on Fox about Houdini and his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the title is “Houdini & Doyle.” They solve mysteries together in England–Houdini being the pragmatist and Doyle being the ardent believer in Spiritualism, which he was. (Poor man, he was totally duped; he also believed the faked photographs of fairies were real.) The premise is accurate–they really were friends but were in complete disagreement about the authenticity of mediums. I can’t wait to see it! 

(And be sure to note what the REAL Houdini and Doyle looked like . . . )

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (3)  
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Looking Up People and Places in Roaring Twenties

Before there were telephone directories, there were city directories, which listed (or tried to list) every person in the city by address and occupation. Needless to say, these are great resources for historians doing research in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I found the perfect one for my story–Polk’s Chicago Directory of 1923, the exact one that would have been on the shelf of most Chicago businesses and in all libraries. Few individuals owned copies. With this, I’ve been able to understand how my main character, Maddie, is able to investigate certain people. 

1923So I was confident about writing this short passage:

“If we could find those men—we might learn something from them. We know their names.” I checked my notes and added, “Samuel Brown and Earl Smith.”

“How we gonna find two men with names like that in a city this size? Chicago’s got more than a million people, and I’ll bet half of them are named Brown and Smith. Samuel and Earl are pretty common too.” To prove his point, he reached for Carlotta’s Chicago Directory and handed it to me.

I flipped a few pages and started counting. “There are eleven pages of Smiths but only twenty-four Earl Smiths. And . . . and . . . geez, you’re right. Fifty-one Samuel Browns!” I sighed. Although most names had occupations listed with them, we didn’t know what sort of work the two men did. None had telephone numbers, of course—these were people, not businesses. I racked my brain for a way past this roadblock. Knocking on that many doors would keep me busy until Easter. Supposing Brown and Smith were relatives—cousins, say, or in-laws—might they live at the same address? I crosschecked the two lists without success. Freddy was right. Stumped, I could only say, “Well, here’s an idea: the police know who they are, because they questioned them after the drowning.”

“You’re gonna walk into the police station and ask them for their files?” Freddy snorted.

Published in: on April 17, 2016 at 8:38 am  Comments (1)  
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“Sign a Song of Gangsters:” A Gangster Map

When I found this gangster map of the Chicago gangland territories in the 1920s, I was thrilled. It is a big help to me as I’m trying to figure out which gang operated in which area. (Click on the map to make it bigger.)

LgGanglandMap

 

Published in: on April 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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Getting Arrested in the 1920s

The mystery I’m currently working on (one-third complete so far!) is set in Chicago in 1924. I have a scene where a speakeasy is raided and the patrons are arrested and taken to the police station. It’s night time. What do the police look like? What does a paddy wagon look like? What does the inside of a police station look like in those days, and at night? I compiled a few pictures to help me describe the scene:

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Published in: on March 11, 2016 at 4:52 pm  Comments (5)  
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Little Caesar by William R. Burnett

220px-LittleCaesarPSome people call Little Caesar the first modern crime novel. That may be. I read it for another reason: it was written in 1929 from the point of view of gangsters in Chicago, the site of my next mystery. I learned a lot I can use in my story.

What interested me most was the language. My story is set in 1924 and Little Caesar was written in 1929, but that’s close enough for me to rely on the language. Here are some phrases I’ll try to work into my narrative: 

*What’s the dirt?

*Hand the boy some dough and he’ll spill the news.

*swell people (for rich people)

*gangsters look down on “saps” and “softies”

*dame (I wasn’t sure this term was in use quite that early)

*She’s an up and up girl

*She’s the real thing

*a cup of Java

*hijackers

Edward_g_robinsonI also picked up a few tips on gangster clothing. One of the gangsters, Rico, was described as wearing a striped suit, “dead black with a narrow pink stripe. The color scheme was further complicated by a pale blue shirt and an orange and white striped tie adorned with a ruby pin.” Gives me some idea about how they dressed.

The book was made into a movie of the same name in 1931, starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. I watched that too.

Published in: on January 30, 2016 at 8:49 am  Comments (4)  
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