In 1905, Fingerprints Pointed to Murder for the First Time in London

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On the morning of March 27, 1905, London shopkeeper Thomas Farrow awoke to the sound of knocking on the front door of the business he managed, Chapman’s Oil and Colour Shop. Though it was 7 a.m.—much earlier than his opening time—Farrow wasn’t about to turn down a little extra business. So he rose from bed, still clad in his pajamas, and answered the door to two men who seemed intent on getting an early-morning browsing session through Farrow’s supply of paints and brushes. It didn’t take long for Farrow to realize that he wasn’t dealing with a pair of anxious artists.

Shortly after opening the door for them, the two men made it clear to Farrow that they were there for his money. When he resisted, they proceeded to attack him, striking him at least a half-dozen times over the head with a blunt instrument. Though Farrow did his best to prevent the men from advancing beyond the storefront, they were able to make their way upstairs, where they found the money that they had come for (a sum that totaled less than $15) and Farrow’s wife, Ann, whom they also brutally attacked.

An hour later, Farrow’s teenaged assistant, 16-year-old William Jones, reported for work and was surprised to find that the door was locked. He went to another one of Chapman’s companies and came back with an assistant. Together, they got into the shop by means of a back door and found Thomas Farrow’s lifeless body.

After alerting the authorities, Sergeant Albert Atkinson arrived on the scene and made his way into the house and up the stairs, where he found Ann, who was badly injured but still breathing (like her husband, she had sustained several blows to the head). She was rushed to the hospital, but it was too late; several days later, she succumbed to her injuries, leaving no eyewitnesses to the crime. And no murder weapon had been found.

What police did have was an empty cash box with a bloody fingerprint, which indicated to them that the motive had been robbery. There were also two people who claimed to have seen two men leaving the Farrows’ shop around 7:15 a.m. that morning: two milkmen, who were able to give police a very detailed description of what the men were wearing. A third witness was able to identify 22-year-old Alfred Stratton as being in the area at the time.

Though Stratton did not have a criminal record, he and his brother Albert were well known to the police for associating with the wrong element.

When questioned, Alfred’s girlfriend confirmed that her boyfriend did own the outfit that the witnesses had described, and that he was wearing it the morning of the murder—but that he gave the clothes away that same day. For her part, Albert’s girlfriend (who said she was "in a family way by him") told police that when her beau had come home that morning, he smelled of paraffin, which she told him, and had an unexplained wad of cash on him.

On April 2, police arrested Alfred at the King of Prussia pub in Deptford; Albert was arrested the next day, not far from the Farrows' home.

When the milkmen were unable to confirm that the Stratton brothers were indeed the two men they saw leaving the Farrows’ shop, it seemed as if the case would have to be built on purely circumstantial evidence. What the two young suspects didn’t realize was that the police had been able to lift a thumbprint from the Farrows’ cash box, and that they had a relatively new investigative technique on their side: fingerprint analysis.

It was only four years earlier that Scotland Yard had begun to understand how powerful a piece of evidence a matched fingerprint could be to a criminal case, and so assembled an entire department whose sole task was to focus on fingerprint analysis.

When the Strattons appeared in court six weeks after the crime, their trial became as much about showcasing what fingerprint evidence could offer law enforcement investigating crimes as it was about proving the two men guilty. Though fingerprint evidence had been cited in murder cases in Argentina in 1892 and India in 1898, it was still a largely untested—and as such, untrusted—methodology. By the time the Stratton case was brought to trial, fingerprint evidence had first been used three years earlier to solve a burglary, but had never been used on a high profile case like this. Because it was such a relatively new concept, skeptics were not yet convinced that a single fingerprint could be of any value to investigators (as opposed to, say, all 10 fingers).

And so the burden of proving that Alfred Stratton’s thumbprint at the murder scene was indeed proof of his and his brother’s guilt in committing the crime was placed on the prosecution’s shoulders. And they ran with it.

The defense put its own expert, Dr. John Garson, on the stand in order to throw up several red flags as to the reliability of fingerprint evidence. But the prosecutor was able to counter (and prove) that Dr. Garson had offered his professional services to the prosecution team’s argument as well, thus making his testimony wholly unreliable.

When called to present evidence in the case, Detective Inspector Charles Collins explained to the jury: “At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of fingerprints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits—in my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond.” He then presented enlarged images of the thumbprint found at the scene and the print taken from Alfred, and pointed out the characteristics that made it clear they were from the same person.

The jury was convinced. It took them just two hours to find the Stratton brothers guilty of the murders of Thomas and Ann Farrow. The case became well known, and led law enforcement agencies worldwide to begin looking for (and at) fingerprints as a way to prove an array of crimes. In 1910, fingerprints pointed to a killer for the first time in the United States when Thomas Jennings was found guilty of the murder of Clarence Hiller in Chicago.

On May 23, 1905, Alfred and Albert Stratton were hanged at Wadsworth Prison.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.