Vital clue ignored for 50 years

Letter shows Scotland Yard might have nailed Jack the Ripper on fingerprints, had it heeded a humble country surgeon

Some of the most notorious criminals of the 19th century, including Jack the Ripper, might have been caught had the authorities heeded the advice of a village surgeon. A letter written in 1840 and up for auction this week bears his suggestion that fingerprints could be used as a tool for solving murders – some 50 years before they came into use for criminal investigations.

Robert Blake Overton, a surgeon in the Norfolk village of Grimstone, wrote a three-page letter of advice after reading about the murder of Lord William Russell on the night of 5 May, 1840 in his Mayfair townhouse. The discovery of a 73-year-old politician in bed with his throat cut was a huge scandal in its day, sparking a major investigation by the Metropolitan Police, then only 10 years old. Having read lurid newspaper reports of bloody handprints on the sheets, Overton wrote to the victim's nephew, Lord John Russell, the future prime minister: "It is not generally known that every individual has a peculiar arrangement [on] the grain of the skin … I would strongly recommend the propriety of obtaining impressions from the fingers of the suspected individual and a comparison made with the marks on the sheets and pillows." He included examples of inky fingerprints to demonstrate his thesis.

His letter was passed to Scotland Yard. It was found among some 700 original documents relating to the investigation of the murder and subsequent trial. The Law Society is selling the collection through Sotheby's in London on Wednesday. It is expected to fetch around £6,000.

Dr Gabriel Heaton, the auctioneer's manuscript specialist, said: "If this idea had been taken up, the whole criminal history of the Victorian period – of the foggy streets and of Sherlock Holmes and of Jack the Ripper – would have looked very different. They'd have had this incredible tool."

He added: "This obscure village surgeon was suggesting the forensic use of fingerprint evidence for identification purposes a full 50 years before the procedure was adopted. It was only in the 1850s that William Hershel began experimenting with fingerprints as a means to identify villagers in India. Decades passed before the identification process was systematised … and it was not until the 1890s that pioneering use was made of fingerprints in criminal investigations. Even Sherlock Holmes did not use fingerprints until 1903.

"Perhaps even Jack the Ripper might have been caught. Instead, this letter was filed away and Overton himself disappears from the history of forensics."

Ironically, though, fingerprint evidence would not have helped to solve Russell's murder. Scotland Yard did look into Overton's suggestion for the case, recording on the back of the letter that, "there were no such marks". But the police failed to draw the wider implication of the idea.

Although a break-in had been staged, Scotland Yard – which at that time did not have a detective department – soon came to believe it was an inside job. Russell's Swiss valet, François Benjamin Courvoisier, was charged, but evidence proving that he had stolen valuables from Russell only came to light during his trial. Russell had discovered the theft, warning Courvoisier he would be dismissed the next morning. Courvoisier panicked and killed him.

The Sotheby's documents include the note passed to the prosecuting attorney that valuables missing from Russell's home had been found at a hotel whose manager could identify the murderer. Courvoisier confessed, and his execution was attended by thousands, including William Makepeace Thackeray, who conveyed his disgust in his anti-capital punishment essay of July 1840, "Going to See a Man Hanged": "I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight."

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum
theatre

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Student
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise
student

Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week