Auburn Roots of New York State's Fingerprint System
NYCHS logo A special essay for NYCHS ©
By Michael Harling

who wrote the NYS Division of
Criminal Justice Services' 1996
Origins of the New York State
Bureau of Identification
Michael Harling NYCHS is
honored Michael
Harling accepted
its invitation to
write on Auburn
roots of NYS'

The Auburn Connection

Michael Harling book cover
Cover of Mike Harling's book

Click book cover image above
to access his web site that
has same name as his book.

In addition to being the first prison built with single-occupancy cells, Auburn Prison has the lesser known distinction of having employed the father-son team responsible for developing and instituting the American System of Fingerprint Identification.
Captain James H. Parke
Capt. James H. Parke,
founder, American System of
Fingerprint Classification.

In 1896, after being abandoned by his wife and losing much of the family fortune, James H. Parke, a 48 year old Whitehall merchant, moved to a rented house at #32 Sherman St., Auburn. With him was his 16 year-old son who, for at least one lengthy period between then and 1902, was confined to Auburn City Hospital, suffering from tuberculosis.

There certainly must have been sunnier times in the Parke family history, but within a few years, this unlikely duo of a down-and-out, middle-aged shopkeeper and his seriously ill son would be at the forefront of the newest wave of criminal identification technology and be poised to steer America away from Europe's Henry System toward a classification system of their own devising.

What the Parkes did when they first arrived in Auburn is unknown, but on May 14, 1898, James Parke began employment at the prison as a guard, a job that paid $780 per annum.

Taking Bertillon Measurements
Taking Bertillon Measurements, a process
that could take up to 20 minutes.

The odyssey into fingerprinting didn't begin until four years later when, in 1902, the State's Bertillon Bureau began creaking to a halt under the weight of its own success.

The Bertillon System

As soon as it was established in 1896, the Bertillon Bureau, housed in Room 111 of the Capitol building at Albany, NY, began to grow exponentially.

By 1900, with over 50,000 cards on file, it was, by far, the largest criminal identification repository in North America; by 1902, the files were literally spilling out into the hallway.

During these six years, the Bureau's staff grew from three to six Bertillon Indexers and, as more and more police agencies discovered the benefits of the system, these young ladies became hard pressed to keep up with the growing demands.

Not surprisingly, finding ways to streamline the searching process became a priority. To this end, Chief Clerk Charles K. Baker and Dr. R. B. Lamb, Superintendent of Dannemora State Hospital, were sent abroad to study the latest enhancements of M. Bertillon's classification system at his institute in Paris.

First Bertillon Card
The first criminal identification card filed
by the New York State Bertillon Bureau.

While in Paris, they heard rumors of a new system operating in England -- one that used fingerprint impressions instead of body measurements -- and paid a visit to Scotland Yard to see if there were any advantages to it.

They never got beyond the front door but, undaunted, they sought out a book shop, parted with a few shillings and returned to France with a copy of "Classification and Uses of Fingerprints" by Edward R. Henry, CSI, and "Fingerprint Directories" by Sir Francis Galton, FRS.

Once back in Albany, they put their enhanced knowledge of the Bertillon system to work in the state's expanding files, and gave the books to James Parke.

Why a prison guard from Auburn was chosen as the recipient of these books is not clear, but there is some evidence that Parke and Baker were friends.

This would explain not only the acquisition of the books, but how Parke got his job at Auburn Prison in the first place, as well as his relatively rapid promotion to the position of bookkeeper.

At the time of Baker's return from Europe, Parke was still officially employed at Auburn Prison, but he and Edward were already living in Albany and James was working in Room 111 of the Capitol in his new position, which made it all the more convenient for Baker to give him the books.

It was from these books that Parke, along with his son, Edward, learned the rudiments of fingerprint classification. On March 3, 1903, the elder Parke was granted permission to set up an experimental fingerprint file in the same room as the Bertillon Bureau.

Bertillion-to-Fingerprinting Transition

Like the Bertillon files, this inauspicious fingerprint collection grew at unbelievable speed and in unexpected ways. James Parke spent more and more time with his fingerprint files and eventually represented the State at the World Exposition in St. Louis in 1904.

NYS Bertillon Bureau - 1902
The NY State Bertillon Bureau in 1902

Edward Parke joined the Department of Prisons with which, in 1906 through 1907, he worked as a parole officer at Auburn Prison -- and eventually took over the fingerprint files from his father.

Edward became the New York's top fingerprint expert; he represented the Department at the Panama Exposition and undertook the monumental task of overcoming the difficulties involved in replacing Bertillonage with fingerprinting as the State's predominant and official identification system

Over the next decade, involvement in fingerprinting led the Parkes to every prison in New York, the World Exposition in St. Louis, and to the little village of Palentine Bridge, NY, before returning them to Whitehall -- James Parke, a bitter, broken man, and Edward dead by his own hand.

The fingerprint classification system developed by the Parkes and used by New York State well into the 1990s did not originate wholey in Auburn anymore than it originated wholely in Albany. That both Auburn and Albany are among the settings figuring into its genealogy seems clear and worth noting.

Had the elder Parke not been hired as an Auburn guard, had his son not been hired as an Auburn parole officer, had they not read and together discussed the Galton and Henry books (some of which readings and discussions likely took place in Auburn), the development of fingerprinting for criminal identification purposes in New York State would have undoubtedly happened but not in the way that it did.

A Parke-less Auburn-less development of New York State's fingerprint system didn't happen; it was "the road not traveled." The actual road traveled most definitely included Auburn as one significant starting point.

For more about the Parkes, Bertillonage, the American System of
Fingerprint Identification, and the NYS Bureau of Identification, read:
Origins of the New York State Bureau of Identification

By Michael Harling

© 1996 by the NYS
Division of Criminal Justice Services

To mark 100 years of Bureau of Identification service Origins of the New York State Bureau of Identification was published as a book in 1996 and as web pages in 1997.
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6-page NYCHS
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