Using fingerprints in criminal investigations became widespread in the early years of the 20th Century. Because no two fingertips are alike, and because fingerprints never change, it became a sure way to connect criminals to their crimes.
This relatively new science was the stuff of Sherlock Holmes, capturing the public’s fascination. On this date in 1931, the Grand Forks Herald published a feature story telling about the exploits of Officer Milo H. Skoien, the city’s magnificent lawman, who was hired as the city’s fingerprint expert in August of 1929.
Officer Milo Skoien was technically ‘traffic cop,’ but his responsibilities as fingerprint expert meant he also read fingerprints to track down crooks who had robbed banks, burglarized houses, or stolen precious goods.
Before his arrival in Grand Forks, Mr. Skoien had studied fingerprint science in Chicago. There he learned the loops and whorls, ridges and scars, and ins and outs of gathering the finger, thumb and handprints of underhanded lawbreakers.
At crime scenes, Officer Skoien made sure that no one touched any “telltale marks” a criminal may have left. He dusted glass, metal or varnished woodwork by sprinkling a black, fine powder on light-colored surfaces; white powder on black things; and grey powder on glass, nickel or highly-polished objects.
Skoien photographed these distinctive traces and attached the photos to fingerprint cards that were sent to the North Dakota bureau of investigation or to the national crime lab in Washington, D.C., to check for a match with fingerprints on file.
In a mere two years on the force, Milo Skoien’s fingerprint sleuthing had led to the arrests and convictions of fourteen burglars, bandits, and thieves.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Fingerprint Clues Lead To 14 Convictions Here,” Grand Forks Herald, March 29, 1931, p. 13.
“Finger Prints Of Nine Years Retake No. 3207,” Bismarck Tribune, December 11, 1928, p. 5.
“Bureau of Criminal Identification,” Bismarck Tribune, January 8, 1931, p. 12.
“Authorities Lose Trail of Bandits Who Slew Bankers,” Bismarck Tribune, May 18, 1933, p. 2.
“Robbers Of Hatton Bank Make Escape,” Bismarck Tribune, September 15, 1932, p. 1.
“Crime Bureau To Be Set Up At Washington,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 22, 1923, p. 3.
“University For Sleuths Opens,” Bismarck Tribune, March 8, 1922, p. 2.
Robert L. Duffus, “U.S. Builds Greatest Fingerprint Bureau,” New York Times, August 24, 1924, p. XX7.
John Edgar Hoover, Federal Bureau of Investigation, The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses (Washington, DC: G.P.O., 1977), p. 2-3.