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Frontier justice
followed crime increase

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Today's instant communication network, finger-printing methods and DNA testing of criminals is a long way from the crude identification methods of the old-time sheriff or town marshal.

When law first came to an outlying settlement, each law official had to work alone. The only means of communication was by U.S. mail, word of mouth and in some areas the telegraph. This was further complicated by the fact that witnesses seeing the same crime differed greatly in their descriptions of those involved in the crime.

Fortunately, a good law officer kept track of new arrivals and those living locally who might be involved in the act.

Crimes were usually local in nature. Avenues and means of escape were limited as few trails led through the area. In many areas, the only escape was by wagon or horseback along both directions of the only trail through town.

The law scribbled down descriptions, last location and names if known and mailed or passed the word along the few escape routes.

Later, if printing presses were available, crude drawings were made and the wanted poster was perfected and distributed. If the crime was murder or theft of large amounts of money or livestock, rewards often came into the picture and capturing the wanted became a vocation with the advent of the bounty hunter.

Interestingly, at this point in American history, many citizens were immigrants who had fled their mother countries because of police abuse.

They were slow to hire and develop law enforcement agencies or give them the power to arrest and prosecute. Often they took the law into their own hands, forming vigilante committees they could control.

Some saw this void of national police control as an opportunity and organized private companies to fill the need.

The most famous and successful was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whose agents were famous for "always getting their man."
Pinkerton's National Detective Agency  logo"We never sleep."
"We never sleep."
Pinkerton's National Detective Agency
Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Wanted posters were kept on file by all law officers who often nailed copies to posts outside saloons and bordellos. The most successful posting place was the local post office, as nearly all citizens entered the place sooner or later to get their mail.

Private enterprise innovated the first dependable criminal filing collections. Pinkerton's is believed to be the first to use two photos, one front and one side profile, still used today.

The Bertillon Measure came next, carefully measuring and recording body parts, drawing tattoos and birthmarks or other deformities as well as photos. However, disguises and changing hair or beard styles could change the normal look shown on a typical wanted poster.

By the 1890s, fingerprinting became the most dependable form of identification.

In 1905 a national bureau was opened to collect fingerprint cards into a national library, becoming one of the first databases in history.

In 1924 Congress created the FBI's Identification Bureau and the rest is history.

But I remember a time when a good friend might greet you with this comment: "Say, I saw your picture in the post office this morning."

August 24, 2010 Column Delbert Trew

More "It's All Trew"
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.
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