Pioneer of Canadian Criminal Fingerprint ID

Langevin Block, where the Canadian Criminal Identification Bureau set up an office in 1911 © Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-023211

For the week of Monday, November 12, 2018.

On November 14th, 1863, Edward Foster, a Canadian pioneer of criminal fingerprint identification, was born in Stittsville, Canada West (today, Ontario). In a 1911 Chicago court case involving the early use of fingerprint identification, Foster was called as an expert witness about this technique, which was new and under scrutiny by the legal system. He testified as to the reliability of fingerprint identification, stating, “I am positive, it is not my opinion.”

In 1890, Foster joined the Dominion Police, a small force organized by the federal government to guard the Parliament Buildings, as a constable. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, he saw a presentation by London Metropolitan Police Detective J.K. Ferrier on the science of fingerprint identification. Wanting to learn more, he studied the method, writing Ferrier for guidance, and became an expert in the field. Two years later, Percy Sherwood, a founder of the Chief Constables Association of Canada (CCAC), described Foster as the most competent man in the field of fingerprint identification.

Foster advocated for a centralized database of fingerprints, as interest in this technique grew within the Dominion Police. By 1911, the force had set up an identification database, long before the establishment of a similar system in the United States. The database consisted of records provided by federal penitentiaries across Canada, including Kingston Penitentiary, which provided 150 descriptive records of inmates. Foster was promoted to rank of inspector and placed in charge of the Dominion Police’s new Canadian Criminal Identification Bureau (CCIB), which was responsible for building the database. At first, the CCIB had only two staff members who catalogued fingerprint records in an office near Parliament Hill.

In 1920, the Dominion Police, along with the CCIB, was absorbed by the newly formed Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which created a Fingerprint Section of their Investigation Bureau. Still lead by Foster, the team grew to two dozen people and fingerprinting became part of the daily routine of police work in Canada. More than 300,000 fingerprints had been collected and used for at least 38,000 identifications by the time of Foster’s retirement in 1932. Today, the database contains millions of fingerprints.

Kingston Penitentiary and Langevin Block are designated national historic sites.

 

Photo record of convicted offender Joseph Chartrand after he had escaped the Kingston Penitentiary in 1910, sparking public outcry over lack of proper identification that contributed to the establishment of the CCIB the following year. © Library and Archives Canada, former archival reference number RG73-C-6

 

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