Fingerprint Evidence Leads to Big Break in Murder Case

After meeting the elusive Lord Lucan last week, we stay in England for another murder case. But this one occurred seventy years before the allegedly homicidal earl disappeared. This is the case of the 1905 Farrow murders.

The Farrow Murders

Thomas and Ann Farrow were 71 and 65 respectively. They managed Chapman’s Oil and Colour Shop, a storefront below their home in the High Street of Deptford, South London. On Monday, March 27, 1905, employee William Jones arrived for work at 8:30 a.m. and found the shop shut. Expecting the shop to be open, Jones knocked but received no answer. Peering through a window, he saw overturned chairs. Now alarmed, he found a local resident, Louis Kidman, and the two forced the door open.

The shop in Deptford, South London, where the Farrow murders occurred
The shop in Deptford, South London, where the Farrow murders occurred

Inside, they found Thomas Farrow dead on the floor. Ann was unconscious in the couple’s bed upstairs. Both Farrows had suffered severe beatings. Jones or Kidman called for the police and a doctor, and Ann Farrow was taken to hospital. She would die there four days later without waking up.

The Police Investigate the Farrow Murders

The Farrow murders didn’t baffle police that much. There was no sign of forced entry. Mr. Farrow was still in his night clothes, leading police to conclude someone had convinced him to let the attackers in. An empty cash box estimated to have held £13 (more than £1,000 today) pointed to robbery as the motive.

The cash box recovered from the scene of the Farrow murders. Arrow points to Alfred Stratton's incriminating thumbprint.
The cash box recovered from the scene of the Farrow murders. Arrow points to Alfred Stratton’s incriminating thumbprint.

There were other clues besides the cash box. On the floor near Farrow’s body were two crude black masks made from stockings, indicating two attackers. Police also found evidence that one or both robbers washed up in a nearby basin after the attacks.

Melville MacNaughten, head of the CID, took it upon himself to examine the cash box. He noticed a greasy smudge that looked like it might be a fingerprint. MacNaughten was fully familiar with using fingerprints as a method of identification. He thought this might be a good case to test this relatively new technique. Carefully packing the cash box in his handkerchief, he took it to Scotland Yard’s nascent fingerprint bureau.

The thumbprint that convicted two murderers.
The thumbprint that convicted two murderers.

Positive Identification

When police interviewed witnesses, and there were many, most reported seeing two men leave the shop at about 7:30 on that Monday morning. One of them, Ellen Stanton, positively identified one of the men as Alfred Stratton. Stratton didn’t have a criminal record, but the police knew him to have criminal contacts. Stratton’s brother, Albert, was also known to police and he match the description of the second man.

Masks used in the Farrow murders
Masks used in the Farrow murders

Alfred Stratton’s girlfriend, Annie Cromarty, strengthened the identification. She told police that he had discarded a dark brown coat and changed his shoes the day after the murders. She also led police to £4 of the stolen cash where Stratton had hidden it. Based on this information and the eyewitness identification of Alfred Stratton, police obtained warrants and arrested the pair on April 2.

After their arrest, police fingerprinted both brothers and compared their prints to the one found on the Farrow cash box. It turned out to be an exact match to Alfred Stratton’s right thumb.

Trial and Conviction

The Stratton brothers went on trial for the Farrow murders on May 5, 1905 at London’s Old Bailey. KC Richard Muir presented the prosecution case. In addition to the eyewitness testimony, which wasn’t universally strong, he had the fingerprint. He called DI Chares Collins, established his credentials in fingerprinting, and had him explain in plain language how fingerprinting worked. Collins then demonstrated how the fingerprint on the cash box matched Alfred Stratton’s right thumbprint.

Sketch of the Albert (L) and Alfred (R) Stratton in the dock for the Farrow murders
Sketch of the Albert (L) and Alfred (R) Stratton in the dock for the Farrow murders

Naturally, the defense tried to discredit fingerprint evidence in general and Collins in particular. They called Dr. John Garson, who had been one of Collins’ mentors. Garson testified to his opinion that the cash box print didn’t match Stratton’s.

Court sketch of the Alfred and Albert Stratton
Court sketch of the Alfred and Albert Stratton

However, Garson was an expert in anthropometry—the use of body measurements for identification—not fingerprinting. Furthermore, KC Muir produced two letters Garson had written. One was to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the other was to the solicitor for the defense. In both, he offered to testify at the trial for the side that paid him more. This revelation crushed the defense and caused Mr. Justice Channell to remark that Dr. Garson was an “absolutely untrustworthy” witness.

The jury required only two hours to convict both brothers of murder and both received the usual sentence of death by hanging. Both Stratton brothers were hanged on May 23, 1905.

Epilogue

The Farrow murders case was a significant milestone in the field of criminology. It was the first case where fingerprint evidence led to a murder conviction. Today, over a century later, the use of fingerprint evidence is commonplace. Defense attorneys sometimes point to the lack of fingerprints as evidence of innocence.

Gary Powell includes the Farrow murders in his 2018 book, Convicted: Landmark Cases in British Criminal History.

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