Footprints and Fingerprints by Carolyn Wells

Footprints and Fingerprints

How Fictional Detectives Rely On Mostly Impossible Evidence

by Carolyn Wells

Without a doubt the most woefully overdone and mix-done evidence is that of footprints. The trouble began with Gaboriau and M. Lecoq.

Table of Contents

The Omnipresence of Footprints

Without a doubt the most woefully overdone and mix-done evidence is that of footprints.

Perhaps with the exception of that one found by Robinson Crusoe, no footprints in fiction,—not even those left on the sands of time for that hypothetical forlorn and shipwrecked brother,—have been either plausible or, in their evidence, credible.

The trouble began with Gaboriau and M. Lecoq, for Poe never descended to the low level of footprints. But in "Monsieur Lecoq," the stage is set on the very first page by the phrase, "It had snowed heavily for the past few days and the thaw had now begun."

But the obliging thaw by no means obliterates the footprints on which the story stands. As Lecoq remarks, "The fellow had a neat pair of boots. What an impression, eh! clear and distinct. Why, you may count every nail."

Such an impression in thawing snow is remarkable of itself, but is as nothing compared to the further details that they learn. Indeed, for twenty-four pages the revelations and declarations of those footprints hold us spellbound. They are dramatically eloquent and show what seems to be even more than human intelligence. No quotation can do them justice. The aspiring author will do well to read, mark and inwardly digest those footprints.

Especially interesting is the detailed description of how Lecoq made plaster of Paris casts of these footprints, undeterred by the fact that the weather had grown much milder and a warm rain had begun to fall. But the thoughtful and considerate rain merely drizzled until the plaster casts were all done, and then, we are told, "it immediately began to come down in earnest."

But the plaster casts were safe, and ready to corroborate all M. Lecoq's deductions, and lead the reader through the devious mazes of Gaboriau's genius.

Now we must agree that a great responsibility was put upon those thoughtlessly made footprints. But it is a no more elaborate affair of the sort than that described in Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet."

To begin with: "No rain had fallen for a week before the evening of the murder." The clayey soil thus being very dry required a great deal of moisture to fit it for footprints, and so, as we are told, "It rained in torrents." This left everything very wet and sloppy for Holmes' investigation. But notwithstanding this and notwithstanding that the pathway was so trampled that Holmes said, "If a herd of buffaloes had passed along there, there could not be a greater mess," our Transcendent Detective had no trouble whatever in reading the footnotes of the case.

Nor was there any difficulty in reading further footprints made in the dust inside the house, where one man had stood still and one had "walked up and down, growing more and more excited." It was no matter that their shoes were soaking wet and muddy; it was no matter that they themselves were dripping with the torrential rain; they left clear and legible footprints in the dust. Then another man came, tramped along the buffalo walk and went into the room, walked around, knelt down, and cut various capers, but though soaking wet, he too, left neat prints that any running detective might read!

In the story of "The Resident Patient," it had "rained hard that very afternoon" and the suspected man rather untidily left several muddy footprints on the light stair carpet. The hero of the story came in directly afterwards, and went both up and down the same stairs, leaving no footprints! But this paradox presents no difficulties to the footprint expert.

"My dear fellow," said he, "it is one of the first solutions that occurred to me, but I was soon able to corroborate the doctor's tale. This young man has left prints upon the stair-carpet which made it quite superfluous for me to ask to see those which he had made in the room. When I tell you that his toes were square-toed instead of being pointed like Blessington's, and were quite an inch and a third longer than the doctor's, you will acknowledge that there can be no doubt as to his individuality."

These square-toed prints, since they showed that they were an inch and a third longer than the doctor's, lead us to think that the man who made them went upstairs sidewise like a crab, or else he could scarcely have made the complete footprint visible. Truly the footprints in detective stories are fearfully and wonderfully made!

One time, however, even Sherlock Holmes confesses his powers at fault. In "The Hound of the Baskervilles" there is a fearful quagmire, so quivering and undulating that "its tenacious grip plucked at our heels as we walked, and when we sank into it, it was as if some malignant hand was tugging us down. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have stepped his foot upon firm land again."

Of this peculiar land formation we are told, "there was no chance of finding footsteps in the mire, for the rising mud oozed swiftly in upon them." True, one would hardly expect footprints in that morass, but you never can tell!

Back to Top

Other Miraculous Discoveries

Sherlock Holmes, having declared himself Past Grand Master in the art of reading footprints, it is not surprising to hear him discourse thus:

"Roof quite out of reach. Yet a man has mounted by the window. It rained a little last night. Here is a print of a foot in mould upon the sill. And here is a circular muddy mark, and here again upon the floor, and here again by the table. See here, Watson! This is really a very pretty demonstration."

I looked at the round, well-defined muddy discs.

"That is not a footmark," said I.

"It is something much more valuable to us. It is the impression of a wooden stump. You see here on the sill is the boot-mark, a heavy boot with a broad metal heel, and beside it is the mark of the timber toe."

"It is the wooden-legged man."

"Quite so."

In another story, a subordinate tells Holmes that "the garden path was saturated with recent rain, and ought to show footprints, " but he could discern none.

"One moment," said Holmes. "Where does this path lead to?"

"To the road."

"How long is it?"

"A hundred yards or so."

"At the point where the path passes through the gate, you could surely pick up the tracks?"

"Unfortunately, the path was tiled at that point."

"Well, on the road itself?"

"No, it was all trodden into mire."

"Tut-tut! Well, then, these tracks upon the grass, were they coming or going?"

"It was impossible to say. There was never any outline."

"A large foot or a small?"

"You could not distinguish."

Holmes gave an ejaculation of impatience:

"It has been pouring rain and blowing a hurricane ever since/1 said he. "It will be harder to read now than that palimpsest. Well, well, it can't be helped. What did you do, Hopkins after you had made certain that you had made certain of nothing?"

But, although harder than palimpsest reading, Mr. Holmes went to the grass border in question, and had no difficulty in reading it glibly. Here is the scene:

"This is the garden path of which I spoke, Mr. Holmes.

I'll pledge my word there was no mark on it yesterday."

"On which side were the marks on the grass?"

"This side, sir. This narrow margin of grass between the path and the flower-bed. I can't see the traces now, but they were clear to me then."

"Yes, yes; someone has passed along," said Holmes, stooping over the grass border. "Our lady must have picked her steps carefully must she not, since on the one side she would leave a track on the path, and on the other an even clearer one on the soft bed?"

To discern these carefully-picked steps on grass, though it had been "pouring rain and blowing a hurricane" ever since they were made, is indeed good work of its sort! One of Ottolengui's best stories, "A Conflict of Evidence," has its third chapter called "Footprints in the Snow."

"I see," said the detective, "what we may be most grateful for, and that is fresh snow. We must extend our investigation presently, and search for footprints."

This they proceeded to do, and the reader is invited to participate by means of a full-page map of house and grounds, with so many and such complicated trails of footprints all over it, that it looks like a Fashion Paper Supplement of patterns.

"We found four sets of tracks," said the detective, exultantly, "besides the dog's, which latter may prove of value. Two of these we think were made by women, and two by men. For convenience, I have numbered them 1, 2, 3 and 4."

So astute are the deductions from these interlaced trails that a small portion of them reads as follows:

"The same as you selected, but for this reason. Notice that here the direction is towards the summer-house, as you just now said; whilst on this side, the point of the toe shows that the owner of the foot returned to her starting point. Unless we find another trail, leading from the house, we have here proof conclusive that this party has remained indoors."

"How so? I don't see that."

"Yet it is simple. Notice that the steps away from the house are very indistinct, whilst those coming toward us are, on the contrary, clear, and sharply defined. The woman left this spot whilst it was yet snowing, so the snow filled up the tracks somewhat. Wherever she went, and that we shall find out perhaps by following the trail, she did not start for home, or to be accurate, she did not reach here, till the snow had ceased falling, as the clear marks testify."

A kind-hearted though uneducated neighbor helps them out with the usual testimony as to weather observations:

"Well, as I said before, I went ter bed airly, seven o'clock in fact; 't was snowin' hard then, an1 I 'lowed't would keep up all night; I slept purty sound but was waked up by the noise my girls made cornin' in from a visit ter a neighbor's. You know how't is when a man's woke up?

He's kinder crusty an1 more 'an all, can't tell whether he's slept ten hours or ten minutes. So as the girls went by my door, I growled out: 'An't you purty late gittin1 home?1 'No pop, it's just nine o'clock,' come the answer. Seein' as how I had a good night's rest before me, I felt a leetle mite pleasanter an' in a' easier tone I said: 'I s'pose the snow's purty deep, an't it?' 'Not very," says one on 'em, 'it stopped awhile ago, an' the moon's out now!! That's all was said. But you see that shows it didn't snow after nine, tho' ef you want it nearer, mebbe I kin find out from the girls."

Back to Top

Remarkable Deductions from Footprints

In "The Quests of Paul Beck" by M. McDonnell Bodkin, we find this exceedingly clever deduction from footprints:

Bending low he scrutinized the edge of the pathway closely as he walked. Twice he found a break in the clean-cut edge, examined it carefully and went on. The third time he found the mark of one of the new-fashioned rubber heels in the turf. The ground had been soft when the mark was made—it was hard now. The segment of the circular heel was cut deep and clear.

"Mr. Rutherford wore rubber heels," he said to the other, rather as one who makes a statement than one who asks a question.

Strangely nodded. Mr. Beck was on his knees on the grass sward with a magnifying glass close to the ground.

He put the grass softly aside as a surgeon parts the hair to examine a scalp wound.

"Was Mr. Rutherford a heavy man?"

Mr. Strangely did not hear him at first, and he repeated the question. "Well, no, he was rather light and wiry, but he had big feet if that's what you mean."

"Right," said Mr. Beck, "here is a full footmark." He got up from his knees and walked on briskly, picking up the trail as if it were the "scent" of a paper-chase, though Strangely1 s eyes could find only a few vague marks amongst the grass. The track skirted the woods and led them to the banks of a deep, dumb river that ran slowly, level with its brim. Along the banks of the river the track led them for about a mile, tending always away from the house.

Under the shelter of a clump of beech, Mr. Beck stopped short and began to cast about like a sporting dog that makes a dead set, weakens on it when he finds the bird has just left, and begins beating cautiously again. He examined every mark about the place with scrupulous care, went on about twenty yards to where the river was crossed by a new iron bridge, and walked a little with bent head on the further side.

Mr. Strangely watched him curiously all the time, till he came back at last to the place where he had first pointed his game, and looked fixedly at the water.

Then very quietly he said to Mr. Strangely:

"Mr. Rutherford's body is out there, under the water."

For reading from footprints on grass, that is doing fairly well! He repeats his success in this instance:

Early next morning Mr. Beck was on the scene of the murder—not the stolid Mr. Beck of the day before, but active, eager, every sense keenly alert.

There was a curious suggestion about him of a well- trained setter dog when it is close upon the game—every nerve and muscle vibrant with suppressed excitement.

Like a setter he beat round the spot, searching the ground with his eyes. There had been much rain of late, and the ground was still soft enough to take and hold footprints. He found three or four prints, small and sharp, of the heel of a girl's shoe. He could even trace where Dick Ackland's foot had slipped and torn the sod as he stopped and turned on his way to the brook when he heard the second revolver shot.

The Vicar's footprints were faint and hard to follow (the lame foot lighter than the other) as he ran for the doctor.

At first Mr. Beck could only find a mere trace at intervals through the grass, but after a bit he reached the bottom of stiff clay that took the mould of the footprints like plaster of Paris.

Miss Mary E. Wilkins outdoes all competitors in her number of tabulated footprints. In her short detective story, "The Long Arm," we find this interesting report:

"I'll tell you what," he said, after a longish pause, "we'd trampled down the ground a good bit all round; we must have trampled out the murderer's footprints."

"It's just possible," I said, "but not likely that you shouldn't have left a square inch of shoeprint anywhere."

No, indeed, that would not be likely in a Detective Story! So the Sergeant went hunting for footprints, with this gratifying result:

Sergeant Edwardes1 report on the footprints near the spot where the body of Miss Judson was found, at 9.35 P.

M., on October 17, 189-:

"I have counted 43 distinct human footsteps and 64 partial imprints.

"Of the 43, 24 are made by the left foot and only 19 by the right.

"Of the 54 faint or partial impressions, I found 17 of the left foot and only 12 of the right, the rest are not distinctive enough to pronounce upon.

"Of the total number of the fainter footprints, 18 are deeply marked in the soft clay, the others are less strongly impressed. Of the 18 that are deeply marked, 11 are made by the left foot, 7 by the right.

"This accords with what I was told subsequently—that Mr. Jex's three labourers, and Mr. Jex himself, on finding Miss Judson's dead body, at once tuck it up in their arms and bore it to the house.

"Bearers of a heavy weight, such as a dead body, walking together, invariably bear heavily upon the left foot, both those who are supporting it on the left, and those who are supporting it on the right side.

"Distinguishing the Footprints by their length, breadth, and the pattern of the nail marks upon them, I find that they are the footprints of five separate persons, all of them men. I also found, clearly impressed, the footprints of the victim herself.

"There had been heavy rain in the morning of the 17th, and the soil is a sticky clay. I examined it at daybreak on the morning of the 18th and, as it had not rained during the night, the impressions were as fresh as if they had just been made. By my orders no one had been allowed to come near the spot where the body was found during the night. Just outside the gate of the orchard, the grass has been long trodden away by passers-by, leaving the earth bare; and the patch of bare earth forms an area rather broader than the gate. On this area the body had fallen, and round about the spot where it had lain I found all the footprints on which I am reporting.

"I have compared the boots worn by the labourers with the impressions near the gate. They correspond in every particular.

"In the case of the footprints of the three labourers, a majority of the deeper impressions are made by the left boot.

"I therefore conclude that all three men came upon the spot only to carry away the body of the girl, and had no hand in her death.

"I argue the same from the footprints made by Mr. Jex.

He also had borne more heavily with the left than with the right foot. He also, therefore, must have come on the spot only to bear off the body, and could have taken no part in the girl's murder.

"There are almost an exactly equal number of impressions, plain or faint, of the footprints of these four persons.

"There remain the footprints of a fifth person. They are the impressions of a man's foot, but the hobnailed boots that made them, though full sized, are of a rather lighter make than the others, and the nail marks are smaller, the boots are newer, for the sides of the impression have a cleaner cut, and, what is important, the impressions of the left foot are in no case deeper than those of the right."

But all this is only a beginning in each case. Such wonders as are discovered from the footprints we have referred to can only be appreciated by reading the books in question.

In "Midnight at Mears House," by Harrison J. Holt, one of the characters states in the first chapter, "some one must have carried him out of the house and thrown him over the cliff; in which case there should be footprints to prove it."

Quite right, of course there should be in a detective story. And there were.

"After the rain of the night before, the ground was still soft in places. We had gone but a few steps when we came upon a clear deep footprint."

And then they went on and followed the footprints to the very edge of the cliff, to "the exact spot, below which Arthur had found the body!"

Now there's a criminal for you! He knew his business, and he went to it, making his footprints in a neat, workmanlike manner.

A really good example of a logical and credible footprint is found in "The Whispering Man," by Henry Kitchell Webster.

"On the hardwood floor was the imprint of the heel of a man's rubber, showing the criss-cross marks that keep you from slipping—a new rubber, but it had been a little damp and a little dirty, and had left a mark."

Now that is an honest, truthful footprint, and the statement that it was a new rubber gives it the last touch of veracity.

But the best disquisition on footprints and their value is found in "The Mystery of the Yellow Room," by Gaston Leroux.

Rouletabille's unerring perspicacity realizes the absurdity of much of this footprint evidence. He remarks on it thus:

"I awaited the coming of daylight and then went down to the front of the chateau, and made a detour, examining every trace of footsteps coming towards it or going from it. These, however, were so mixed and confusing that I could make nothing of them. Here I may make a remark,—I am not accustomed to attach an exaggerated importance to exterior signs left in the track of a crime.

"The method which traces the criminal by means of the tracks of his footsteps is altogether primitive. So many footprints are identical. However, in the disturbed state of my mind, I did go into the deserted court and did look at all the footprints I could find there, seeking for some indication, as a basis for reasoning.

"If I could but find a right starting point! In despair I seated myself on a stone. For over an hour I busied myself with the common, ordinary work of a policeman.

Like the least intelligent of detectives, I went on blindly over the traces of footprints which told me just no more than they could.

"I came to the conclusion that I was a fool, lower in the scale of intelligence than even the police of the modern romancer. Novelists build mountains of stupidity out of a footprint on the sand, or from an impression of a hand on the wall. That's the way innocent men are brought to prison. It might convince an examining magistrate or the head of a detective department, but it's not proof. You writers forget that what the senses furnish is not proof.

If I am taking cognizance of what is offered me by my senses I do so but to bring the results within the circle of my reason. That circle may be the most circumscribed, but if it is, it has this advantage—it holds nothing but the truth! Yes, I swear that I have never used the evidence of the senses but as servants to my reason. I have never permitted them to become my master. They have not made of me that monstrous thing—worse than a blind man—a man who sees falsely. And that is why I can triumph over your error and your merely animal intelligence, Frederic Larsan!"

But the would-be author need not deem these footprint clues entirely unavailable for his use. They are a permissible part of the required mechanism, and utilized in moderation, add rather than detract from the usual plot. They are not truth, but they make interesting fiction, if worked up with a semblance of reality and with convincing circumstance.

Back to Top

Fingerprints and Teeth-marks

More recent is the reading of thumb and fingerprints. The discovery of the individuality of fingerprints gave detectives a new field, both in fiction and in life.

In a book of stories, "Adventures of the World's Greatest Detectives," by George Barton, which are said by the author to be literally true, we have an astonishing coincidence. A detective found in a public house a drinking glass that had on it perfectly distinct marks of four fingers and a thumb. Following the trail, a cab was found, on the door of which were five distinct prints of four fingers and a thumb. After reproducing on sensitized paper, the two sets of imprints were found to be identical! This is a Scotland Yard story, but as the author confesses in his preface to "a few pardonable embellishments," we can't help thinking that pardon is desired in this case. However, fingermarks are undoubtedly used largely in real detection, and have not yet been overdone in fiction. Indeed, our up-to-date criminals are said to wear rubber gloves so they will leave no prints. And in "The Silent Bullet," by Arthur B. Reeve, we are told of an ingenious miscreant who "painted his hands lightly with a liquid rubber which he had invented himself. It did all that rubber gloves would do, and yet left him the free use of his fingers with practically the same keenness of touch."

Another ingenious contrivance is described in a recent tale, where a very bad man gets a wax impression of another man's thumb and makes falsely incriminating prints in suspicious places.

Now all of these devices are legitimate, and if the alert author can contrive a new combination, or a new twist to an old one, he may produce a good situation.

Speaking of imprints, marks of teeth used in biting an apple, figure prominently in at least two modern stories.

One, in Arthur Morrison's "The Case of Mr. Foggatt" gives the detective an opportunity to air his knowledge of apples, which is as extraordinary as Sherlock Holmes's erudition regarding cigar ash. As it is of interest, we append his dissertation:

"First, now, the apple was white. A bitten apple, as you must have observed, turns of a reddish brown color if left to stand long. Different kinds of apples brown with different rapidities, and the browning always begins at the core. This is one of the twenty thousand tiny things that few people take the trouble to notice, but which it is useful for a man in my position to know. A russet will brown quite quickly. The apple on the sideboard was, as near as I could tell, a Newtown pippin or other apple of that kind, which will brown at the core in from twenty minutes to half an hour, and in other parts in a quarter of an hour more. When we saw it, it was white with barely a tinge of brown about the exposed core. Inference: somebody had been eating it fifteen or twenty minutes before, perhaps a little longer—an inference supported by the fact that it was only partly eaten.

"I examined that apple, and found it bore marks of very irregular teeth. While you were gone, I oiled it over, and, rushing down to my rooms, where I always have a little plaster of Paris handy for such work, took a mould of the part where the teeth had left the clearest marks. I then returned the apple to its place for the police to use if they thought fit. Looking at my mould, it was plain that the person who had bitten that apple had lost two teeth, one at top and one below, not exactly opposite, but nearly so. The other teeth, although they would appear to have been fairly sound, were irregular in size and line. Now, the dead man had, as I saw, a very excellent set of false teeth, regular and sharp, with none missing. Therefore, it was plain that somebody else had been eating that apple. Do I make myself clear?"

"Quite! Go on!"

"There were other inferences to be made—slighter, but all pointing the same way. For instance, a man of Foggatt's age does not, as a rule, munch an unpeeled apple like a school-boy. Inference a young man, and healthy."

By great good luck, the detective ran across the apple-biter again, took another cast and with the pair, which were identical, marched to success.

The other apple-biter is in "The Saintsbury Affair," by Roman Doubleday, and the details of the biting are much the same as in Mr. Morrison's story. This is an ingenious identification idea and any plan of such interesting nicety may be used in detective fiction. As Shakespeare's characters bite their thumbs when they choose, so may an all-wise author cause his puppets to bite apples at his own sweet will.

In the Fictive Detectives' Working Library, this Monograph on Apples and their Habits should stand beside Sherlock Holmes technical monographs.

Back to Top