Case: Fingerprints: The murders of Thomas and Ann Farrow
Victim
Name:
Thomas Farrow
Gender:
Male
Date:
1905-03-27
Nationality:
British
Weapon:
Blunt Object
Victim
Name:
Ann Farrow
Gender:
Female
Date:
1905-03-31
Nationality:
British
Weapon:
Blunt Object
Killer
Name:
Albert Stratton
Gender:
Male
Nationality:
British
Killer
Name:
Alfred Stratton
Gender:
Male
Nationality:
British
Status: Solved
Categories: Robbery
Case synopsis:

The first British murder case to be solved using fingerprints took place in Detpford, south London, on March 27, 1905.

At 7 o'clock that morning shop manager Thomas Farrow, 71, had not yet got dressed to open up for the day when there was a knock at the door. Not wanting to pass up a bit of early business, he let them in even though he was still in his nightshirt.

But the two men who entered G Chapman's Oil and colour stores at 34 High Street were not interested in his paints and brushes. They wanted to know where he kept his money.

When he resisted Farrow was battered over head at least six times with a crossbar, first as he stood behind the counter and then when he tried to stop his attackers going upstairs.

On the second floor the robbers found not only the cash box but also Farrow's 65 year-old wife Ann. She too was shown no mercy before the two men fled with their loot. It amounted to a little under ten pounds.

Just over an hour later, 16 year-old William Jones turned up for work to find the door locked and immediately sensed something was wrong. After running to Greenwich to get help, he and another shop assistant went round the back to find the scullery door open.

Inside they found Thomas Farrow lying face down in a pool of blood in the parlour. His last act before collapsing under a chair had been to lock the front door to prevent the robbers coming back.

It was left for the first policeman at the scene, Sergeant Albert Atkinson, to go upstairs and find Mrs Farrow, moaning in pain from severe injuries to her head. She clung to life for another four days before dying in hospital.

An examination of the crime scene revealed blood in a basin where the killer washed his hands. There were also two stockings with eye-holes cut in them, stockings which matched pairs owned by Mrs Farrow.

There was no sign of forced entry, no murder weapon and no eyewitnesses. A pair of milkmen had seen two men coming out of the Chapman store that morning. One had a dark moustache and was wearing a bowler hat, a blue suit and black boots. The other was wearing a dark brown suit, a grey cap and brown boots.

Another witness had seen two men running down the High Street at 7.15am and recognised one of them as Alfred Stratton, 22. Alfred was arrested six days after the murder at the King of Prussia pub in Deptford and his brother Albert - thought likely to be the second man - was detained at a street corner 24 hours later. Then on April 8, more than £2 of the stolen money was found near Deptford Creek.

Alfred's girlfriend was also to tell police that he had returned home on the morning of the murder with money and smelling of paraffin, but the case was weak and circumstantial. Neither were picked out by the milkmen who had seen the robbers.

Called before the coroner for the inquest they laughed when the jury returned a verdict of 'wilful murder.' According to journalists, they spent the hearing whistling and stamping their feet on the floor 'as though they were in the gallery of some cheap place of amusement.'

The vital evidence was to be the greasy mark of a left thumb on the cash box. Scotland Yard's fingerprint branch, which had been set up in 1901, matched it to Alfred Stratton.

Albert and Alfred Stratton

Albert and Alfred Stratton in the dock (Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper)

On May 5 the Stratton brothers went on trial at the Old Bailey. Also on trial was the science of fingerprinting.

The idea of using fingerprints for identifying criminals had first been suggested in an article in Nature by the Scottish missionary doctor Henry Faulds in 1880. He approached Scotland Yard with the idea but was dismissed as a crank.

Instead the credit for developing the science of fingerprints would go to Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. Even then, the police preferred the Bertillon method of distinguishing crooks by measurement of the body, including the size of the head, ears, arms, fingers and feet.

The Fingerprint Branch was set up in 1901 when Edward Henry was appointed assistant commissioner CID. By then fingerprints had helped solve a murder in Argentina in 1892 and India in 1898.

Until 1905, fingerprints had only solved one crime, a burglary in 1902, but their real success had been in linking criminals to the many aliases they had used over the years to avoid being locked up for longer as repeat offenders.

In 1904 the old system of identification by sight was conclusively proved fallible when it emerged Adolf Beck had been wrongly imprisoned for five years after being mistaken for a fraudster. He was awarded £5,000 in compensation.

The uniqueness of fingerprints was a key part of the Stratton trial, although there were still doubts as to whether a single print was strong enough to sustain a case as opposed to all ten fingers.

Giving evidence, Detective Inspector Charles Collins told the jury:

At Scotland Yard we have now between 80,000 and 90,000 sets of finger prints, which means between 800,000 and 900,000 impressions of digits. In my experience I have never found any two such impressions to correspond... I found that Alfred's right thumb corresponded with the mark on the cash box and I prepared for the purpose of comparison an enlargement of the mark upon the cash box, and one practically on the same scale of the right thumb of Alfred... I have indicated by red lines and figures eleven characteristics in which those two prints agree... I did not find any characteristic which is visible in the print on the cash box which does not agree.

The Stratton brothers were found guilty by the jury after two hours deliberation and on May 23, 1905, they were hanged. Fingerprints were from that point used with confidence to convict innumberable criminals who might have escaped justice otherwise.

It was only in the late 20th Century that their place in the courtroom was supplanted by the new science of DNA.

Further reading:

More detailed evidence of witnesses and the account of Alfred Stratton can be found in some detail in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey report of the case.

The case is dealt with by a number of websites and blogs including Wikipedia, Caroline's Miscellany and Ridges and Furrows, but the most comprehensive account is to be found in the book Fingerprints: Murder and the Race to Uncover the Science of Identity.

Old newspaper reports on the case can be found on the Old Deptford History Blog.

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