Before DNA databases, before ink-stained fingerprint cards, before stacks of photographs, the best tool police departments had for identifying criminals was an average Joe with a photographic memory.

In eighteenth-century Europe, the more advanced police departments hired people with good visual recall to mentally record the faces of criminals and identify the guilty.

It’s hard to imagine today, but “yep, looks like the guy” was considered acceptable evidence back then.

With the advent of photography a century later, police departments kept a collection of photographs of known criminals — an important antidote to the fickleness of memory.

But photographs still weren’t perfect because faces change over time. Fingerprints do not.

The unique combination of loops and arches available at our fingertips has value beyond identifying criminals. It also forms the basis for one of the most popular elective merit badges in BSA history.

In this edition of Merit Badge History, we look at the fascinating story of the Fingerprinting merit badge.

A brief history of fingerprint identification

For centuries, humans have understood that we each have a unique pattern of ridges at the ends of our fingers. First Nation communities in Nova Scotia, Canada, for example, carved into the side of a cliff a drawing of a hand with clearly defined ridges meant to be fingerprints.

But understanding we have fingerprints is one thing. Using them for identification is another.

While scientists have been studying fingerprints since at least 1686 in Bologna, Italy, their widespread use as a means of identification — that is, comparing two sets of prints to determine whether they match — was not formalized until 1901.

That’s when Sir Edward Henry, who later became commissioner of police at Scotland Yard, devised the method for filing and classifying prints that we still use today.

Police used fingerprints to identify the evidence left behind by criminals and ensure that a person being placed in jail is the same one convicted of the crime and not some look-alike.

But they soon learned it was also useful in cases of accidental death, loss of memory or other emergencies.

And that’s where the Boy Scouts of America would come in.

Rallying Scouts to the cause

When you need something done, you call the Scouts.

From gathering scrap metal during World War II to creating homemade face coverings at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Scouts have been there for their communities for generations.

When FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called on the nation to send their fingerprints to the “Civilian Files,” Scouts responded in a big way.

At the BSA’s national meeting in 1936, volunteer leaders launched a nationwide effort to collect fingerprints of members. The fingerprints would be added to the civilian records kept at the Department of Justice and would remain confidential and separate from those fingerprints stored in the FBI’s criminal files.

“This absolutely voluntary act,” the BSA’s resolution reads, would be “an infallible and lifelong means of identification of the law-abiding citizen who would benefit personally in cases of amnesia (loss of memory), accidental death and attacks upon his person.”

Collecting fingerprints would be “proof to the public that the Boy Scouts of America stands back of all movements that advance the best interests of our country,” the resolution reads.

A merit badge debuts

Two years later, in 1938, the Fingerprinting merit badge made its debut. The pamphlet was written in consultation with the FBI and police departments. (That’s true of the current edition of the merit badge pamphlet, too!)

In April 1938, Scouting magazine described the new merit badge as one that “combines an interesting hobby with handicraft,” adding that without fingerprints to identify victims “the bodies would have lain unidentified in a morgue instead of being returned to loved ones for burial.”

To earn the merit badge, Scouts had to complete the following five requirements:

  1. Take a clear and legible set of fingerprints, including rolled and plain impressions, on a standard 8×8 card.
  2. (a) Name the surfaces of the human body on which friction or papillary ridges are found. (b) Explain why plain impressions must necessarily be taken on a fingerprint card.
  3. Show that he can identify the 9 pattern types in which Sir Edward Henry groups fingerprint patterns, and collect a specimen of at least 6 of these types.
  4. Give a brief history of identification by fingerprinting, and distinguish between civil identification and criminal identification, pointing out the useful purposes served by each.
  5. Obtain the fingerprints of 5 persons and present evidence that these fingerprints, together with complete descriptive data, have been accepted for the civil identification file.

Pay particular attention to that last requirement, which isn’t part of today’s list. It asked Scouts to become de facto ambassadors for the FBI’s Civil Identification Bureau. Instead of collecting just one Scout’s fingerprints at a time, the FBI would be able to get five sets for each Scout who earned the merit badge.

This would, in effect, quintuple the BSA’s impact on this cause.

It seemed to work. Two decades later, in 1958, the FBI announced it had reached a significant milestone in its efforts to fingerprint the nation.

It received and filed its 150 millionth set of fingerprints on Oct. 9, 1958. Fittingly, this particular collection of curved lines and loops belonged to a Scout: 12-year-old Robert Lawrence Clark of Springfield, Va.

Robert had submitted his prints while earning the Fingerprinting merit badge.

Hoover honored

In 1943, the BSA recognized J. Edgar Hoover’s contributions to Scouting with the Silver Buffalo Award, an honor presented to volunteers who show distinguished national service to the Scouting movement.

In his official citation, Hoover was honored in part for being an “honorary Scoutmaster” and also for serving as the “national merit badge counselor for Fingerprinting.” (Which makes us wonder who might make good national merit badge counselors for other badges. Let’s get the “Bear Grylls for Wilderness Survival merit badge national counselor” campaign started now.)

The years since

There’s something inherently cool about earning a merit badge in Fingerprinting. As a Scout, you get to experience, even for a moment, the life of an FBI agent or forensic investigator — roles many young people only see on TV.

Sometimes, if you find the right merit badge counselor, you even get to learn from one of these people.

“Just imagine,” one Scout said at the 1985 National Jamboree, “having a real FBI man helping me get my Fingerprinting merit badge!”

Fingerprinting continues to be popular today. For the past four years — 2017 to 2020 — the badge has been the most popular non-Eagle-required merit badge. In the lifetime rankings (1911 to 2020, available here), Fingerprinting ranks No. 23.

Exactly 1,891,477 Scouts have earned Fingerprinting in its 82 years of existence. That makes Fingerprinting’s lifetime popularity higher than the merit badges for classics like Archery, Cycling and Public Health — each one of the original 57 merit badges.

Today’s requirements

As found in the official pamphlet.

  1. Give a short history of fingerprinting. Tell the difference between civil and criminal identification.
  2. Explain the difference between the automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) now used by law enforcement agencies and the biometric fingerprint systems used to control access to computers and places like buildings and airports.
  3. Do the following:
    a. Name the surfaces of the body where friction or papillary ridges are found.
    b. Name the two basic principles supporting the science of fingerprints and give a brief explanation of each principle.
    c. Explain what it takes to positively identify a person using fingerprints.
  4. Take a clear set of prints using ONE of the following methods.
    a. Make both rolled and plain impressions. Make these on an 8-by-8-inch fingerprint identification card, available from your local police department or your counselor.
    b. Using clear adhesive tape, a pencil, and plain paper, record your own fingerprints or those of another person.
  5. Show your merit badge counselor you can identify the three basic types of fingerprint patterns and their subcategories. Using your own hand, identify the types of patterns you see.

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