LONDON - On the morning of 6 May 1840, Lord William Russell was found in bed with his throat cut. The murder of an elderly aristocrat in his Mayfair townhouse (just a short stroll from New Bond Street) commanded enormous public attention and a major investigation was instigated by the Metropolitan Police, formed just eleven years earlier. A remarkable volume of original documents relating to the investigation and subsequent trial is offered in The English Literature and History sale on 12 December. This file of papers provides a remarkably full insight into the investigation and trial itself, but one letter in particular gives a prescient piece of advice.
Ten days after the murder, a surgeon called Robert Blake Overton who resided in the Norfolk village of Grimstone wrote to the victim’s nephew, the prominent politician Lord John Russell (who passed the letter to Scotland Yard), referring to the “marks of bloody fingers” found at the murder scene. He informed him that, ”it is not generally known that every individual has a peculiar arrangement [on] the grain of the skin the impression of which may be distinctly seen by the aid of a high magnifying glass.” Overton went on to explain, “the impressions made from the fingers of different persons will produce different shapes,” and concluded, “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 even included two pairs of inky fingerprints in his letter to demonstrate his thesis.

Robert Blake Overton, autograph letter signed, to Lord John Russell, 3 pages, 17 May 1840.

This obscure village surgeon was suggesting the forensic use of fingerprint evidence for identification purposes a full fifty 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 (by, among others, Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton), and it was not until in the 1890s that pioneering use was made of fingerprints in criminal investigations; even Sherlock Holmes did not use fingerprints until 1903.

The history of criminal investigation might have looked very different if Overton’s suggestion had been followed and one of the most important technological developments in forensics had taken place at the beginning of the Victorian period – a time of public executions, when policing was first becoming professionalised. Countless investigations could have taken a different course; perhaps even Jack the Ripper might have been caught. Instead, this letter was filed away and Overton himself disappears from the history of forensics. But there is one murder that fingerprint evidence would not have helped to solve: that of Lord William Russell himself. Scotland Yard took sufficient interest in Overton’s suggestion to record on the back of the letter that, “there were no such marks, except those made by the Surgeons who first examined the wound”.

The collection of documents relating to the murder of Lord William Russell will be at auction at the English Literature, History, Children’s Books, and Illustrations Sale, London, 12 December 2012, Lot 22, £4000 -£6000.