Stranger Than Fiction

May 2020

The Two Will Wests

By Dean Jobb

 

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The almost-identical mugshots of Leavenworth Prison inmates Will and William West. (Author Collection)

The intake process was mind-numbingly routine for Leavenworth’s clerks. Will West, newly arrived in May, 1903 to serve a ten-year sentence in the Kansas prison for manslaughter, was about to become inmate No. 3426.

His name and personal details were written down. Mug-shot photographs were taken. Then staff members produced calipers and rulers to add West’s body measurements to the state-of-the-art Bertillon identification system. They made eleven notations on a standardized card, including his height, the length of his feet, the size of his right ear, and the distance from fingertip to fingertip when he stood with outstretched arms.

The chief of the prison’s identification unit, Matthew McClaughry, was renowned for his ability to remember faces. And he was certain this was not the first time he had seen this face.

“You have been here before.”

“No, sir,” West assured him.

A check of the prison’s files produced a Bertillon card for William West, a man serving a life sentence for murder. His measurements were an almost-perfect match and the attached mug shots were a dead ringer for the new inmate. But according to the card, this William West was inmate No. 2626 and he was already incarcerated in, of all places, Leavenworth.

Will West was shown the mug shot. He seemed confused, and unsure what to say.

“That may be my photo, all right, but I don’t know how you got it,” he insisted. “I’ve never been here before.”

Prison officials suspected West was posing as a newcomer, perhaps in hopes of being assigned to a different work detail. But why would he use his real name, ensuring his ruse would be easily discovered? The truth only emerged when William West, the convicted murderer, was found where he was supposed to be, at his post in a prison workshop.

There were two Will Wests.

Leavenworth’s inmate was brought to the prison’s offices to confront his namesake.

“They could easily pass off for twins,” the Leavenworth Times reported a few years after the encounter. “Each thought he was looking into a mirror.” The men had never met, but they were both from Texas and had been born months apart. And each one had been convicted of crimes committed in what would soon become the state of Oklahoma.

McClaughry concluded the men must be related and were likely cousins. But he realized the discovery of the almost-identical Will Wests was more than an extraordinary coincidence. It could be a deathblow to the Bertillon system—a system his father, Leavenworth warden Robert McClaughry, had introduced to America from Europe and had championed for years.

“If William West had escaped, and in searching for him Willie West would have been arrested,” Matthew McClaughry told the Leavenworth Times in 1907, “nothing in the world but the turning up of William West would have prevented the other from serving out the latter’s term in prison.”

But something in the world could sort out who was who. Their fingerprints.

 

STF-May2020-image2Comparing the West’s fingerprints proved to be the only reliable way to tell them part. (Author Collection)
 

The identification system that bore Alphonse Bertillon’s name was a scientific solution to a problem that had long bedeviled detectives and judges. Without a reliable means to identify convicted criminals, many recidivists were being punished as first-time offenders and receiving lighter sentences.

Photographs had been used as an identification tool since the mid nineteenth century, and major police forces and prisons maintained “rogues galleries” of offenders. But facial features changed as an offender aged, and a moustache or beard might be enough to alter a man’s appearance and make identification difficult.

Bertillon, a clerk at the headquarters of the Paris police, was familiar with anthropometry, the study of the proportions of the human body, and in 1879 he suggested measuring a criminal’s body parts to identify repeat offenders. While two men might be found to have the same-sized foot, for instance, the chances of multiple measurements being identical were remote, and the odds of finding two subjects with an identical set of measurements was estimated at one in more than four million.

The idea that science could be used to fight crime was novel. Years passed before Bertillon was allowed to test his system, but he identified enough recidivists to prove it worked. Police forces and penal institutions across Europe soon adopted “Bertillonage.” To make a misidentification even more unlikely, the subject’s face was photographed and eye color and any tattoos or scars were recorded.

Robert McClaughry, warden of the Illinois State Prison in Joliet, introduced Bertillonage to the U.S. in 1887. “It substitutes certainty for uncertainty,” he claimed, “a thoroughly reliable identification for the shrewd guess of the detective, or the scarcely more reliable testimony of the photograph.” Within a decade, 150 American police forces and prisons were using the system. Possessing a set of Bertillon’s tools, noted the criminologist Raymond B. Fosdick, “became the distinguishing mark of the modern police organization.”

But Bertillonage had its drawbacks. Trained technicians were needed to ensure measurements were accurate. Tools became worn or bent as they were used, producing results that could match an innocent man to a criminal of similar size and build. And Bertillon records could only be used to identify a repeat offender—it could not link an unknown offender to the scene of a crime. “No man can be pursued by the police or by any detective,” McClaughry conceded, “by means of this system.”

Another method of identifying criminals was on the horizon. Early in the nineteenth century, a Czech scientist remarked on the “marvelous grouping and curvings of the minute furrows associated with the organ of touch,” which proved to be unique to each individual. Their crime-fighting potential was finally recognized in 1880, when a Scottish doctor, Henry Faulds, called on police to collect “the forever-unchangeable finger-furrows of important criminals” for comparison to prints found at crime scenes.

Faulds urged major police forces to adopt the practice, but his breakthrough was ignored for years. Almost two decades passed before Scotland Yard began collecting and indexing fingerprints in 1901, and another four years before they were used for the first time in a British murder case. The New York police would become the first in the U.S. to use fingerprint evidence to solve a murder case, but not until 1906.

Fingerprinting was earning converts as an alternative to Bertillon measurements. But it was still a novel forensic tool when Matthew McClaughry came face-to-face with Will and William West.

 

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“A Finger Print Victory”: The Leavenworth Weekly Times reported the story of the look-alike inmates in April 1907. (Author Collection)

McClaughry had studied anthropometry in Paris under Alphonse Bertillon, and by 1903 he was regarded as “the greatest expert in the Bertillon system outside of France.” But finding two men with almost identical body measurements appears to have shaken his faith in the system. There were minor differences between the Wests—one was a half-inch shorter and had a slightly smaller left foot—but one newspaper report asserted that any prison clerk with Bertillon training “would have sworn they were one and the same.”

While the odds of two people sharing the same Bertillon measurements might be four-million-to-one, it now appeared this might not be enough to prevent an innocent man from being misidentified as a criminal.

In 1905, McClaughry convinced his superiors to add fingerprinting to Leavenworth’s identification procedures. “While the Bertillon system is accurate, I believe that the fingerprint system, which is not less accurate, will supersede it,” he predicted. “The fingerprint can be taken without any expensive apparatus and by any person of ordinary skill.”

By then even Bertillon had been won over, and his system’s cards were revised to include a space for a subject’s prints. When the Wests were fingerprinted, the distinctive loops and whorls of their fingertips finally made it possible to distinguish between the doppelgängers.

The discovery of the look-alike Wests has been recounted in books on criminal identification and fingerprinting since 1918 and is cited in the official history of the FBI. But is it a tale too good to be true?

Fingerprinting expert Robert Olsen dismissed the story as “a fable” in the 1980s, after he was unable to find contemporary reports of the look-alikes. In his 2001 book Suspect Identities, criminologist Simon Cole argued the episode was “fabricated”—or at least embellished after the fact—to bolster the reputation of fingerprinting. He cited several discrepancies, including evidence the Will West convicted of manslaughter was lying when he said he had never been locked up in Leavenworth; the clerks did not realize he had served time there prior to 1903, under the name Johnson Williams.

But neither Cole nor Olsen appear to have been aware that the Leavenworth Times had reported on the incident only a few years after it occurred, in a pair of articles published in April 1907. And its significance was obvious from the outset—one of the articles declared it “the greatest victory the Finger Print system of identification has yet scored over the Bertillon system.” These reports also quote Matthew McClaughry, bolstering their credibility.

Regardless of how crucial the incident was to the adoption of fingerprinting, the men’s prison records—including their mirror-image mug shots, matching Bertillon measurements, and mismatched fingerprints—survive to authenticate an amazing coincidence.

Will West, the newer of the two Leavenworth inmates, served his manslaughter sentence and left no trail after his release. William West, the lifer, spent time in solitary confinement for fighting and creating disturbances during his early years behind bars. He was released on parole in 1919, but not before making a dash for freedom.

By 1916 West was a model prisoner and a “trusty,” an inmate entrusted to guard and discipline other prisoners on work details. One afternoon he “succumbed to the temptation,” as he put it, and walked away. He hopped a freight train and made it as far as Topeka before he was arrested the next day and returned to Leavenworth.

The police officers who picked him up did not need fingerprints to confirm he was an escapee. A prison-issued circular bearing his mug shots and a written description had already reached Topeka. Ironically, they were enough to nab a man who had helped to modernize the identification of criminals.  

 

Sources:

You have been here before “William West and Will West: Not Same Man,” Leavenworth Times, April 10, 1907. (This appears to be one of the earliest published accounts of the incident and what was said.)

convicted of their crimes in . . . Oklahoma Frank Morn, Forgotten Reformer: Robert McClaughry and Criminal Justice Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (University Press of America, 2011), 302-03. Morn refers to the suspicions that William West was trying to pose as a new inmate.

If William West had escaped “Finger Print System Grows,” Leavenworth Times, April 1, 1907.

used as an identification tool Dominic Midgley, “World’s first ever mugshots: An early rogues gallery of 19th Century criminals,” Daily Express, June 14, 2018. Available online: https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/974039/mugshot-police-criminals-worlds-first-birmingham

measuring a criminal’s body parts Bertillon’s background and the development of his anthropometric system is traced in Colin Beavan, Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case that Launched Forensic Science (Hyperion, 2001) 76-93.

substitutes certainty for uncertainty Quoted in Frank Morn, Forgotten Reformer: Robert McClaughry and Criminal Justice Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (University Press of America, 2011), 93.

became the distinguishing mark Raymond B. Fosdick, “The Passing of the Bertillon System of Identification,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 6 no. 3 (1915), 364.

No man can be pursued Quoted in Morn, Forgotten Reformer, 255.

marvelous grouping and curvings C. Ainsworth Mitchell, The Expert Witness and the Applications of Science and of Art to Human Identification, Criminal Investigation, Civil Actions and History (W. Heffer & Sons 1923), 38.

used for the first time Beavan, Fingerprints, 13, 17, 186-87, 190-92.

the greatest expert in the Bertillon system Morn, Forgotten Reformer, 177.

sworn they were one and the same “William West and Will West: Not Same Man,” Leavenworth Times, April 10, 1907.

the Bertillon system is accurate Morn, Forgotten Reformer, 305.

a fable “A Fingerprint Fable: The Will and William West Case,” of Identification News, vol. 37, No. 11(November 1987). Available online: http://www.scafo.org/library/110105.html

fabricated Simon A. Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Harvard University Press 2001). Cole notes the reference to the Will Wests in the FBI’s official history.

The greatest victory “William West and Will West: Not Same Man,” Leavenworth Times, April 10, 1907.

succumbed to the temptation “Capture Escaped Federal Trusty,” Leavenworth Times, October 25, 1916. William West’s prison records are found in Morn, Forgotten Reformer, 302-03.

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Dean Jobb’s next book recreates the crimes of Victorian-era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in the U.S., England and Canada and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner (coming in 2021 from Algonquin Books). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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