One night, hubby and I were watching Bonanza—an episode we’d seen several times. (If you’re not familiar with Bonanza, it’s a vintage cowboy-ish television show set in the 1860s. You can read about here.) In this episode, Little Joe Cartwright was arrested for murder, but at the end of the show, he was proven innocent in court.
So, what does this have to do with cozy mysteries? Well, it wasn’t law enforcement that helped prove Little Joe innocent, it was Hop Sing, the Cartwright trusty cook. Like a good sleuth, he used his own wits to prove that Little Joe didn’t handle the murder weapon by demonstrating how fingerprints work. And what was fascinating to me about this was that Hop Sing claimed that people in his country had been using this technique for years.
The first time I saw this particular Bonanza, I asked, “Really? Are they for real?” Everyone knows fingerprints weren’t used until Sherlock Holmes. (Just kidding.) But seriously, I did wonder if the writers of the show made this up, or if they had facts to back up their story.
Out came my trusty laptop. I looked it up, and the writers of Bonanza didn’t disappoint me. China, in fact, had a lengthy history of using fingerprints (and hand prints).
The earliest example comes from a Chinese document entitled “The Volume of Crime Scene Investigation—Burglary”, from the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 B.C.). The document contains a description of how hand prints were used as a type of evidence. Chinese officials pressed their fingerprints into clay seals to seal documents. And when the Chinese began to use silk and paper for documents, they used hand prints as a means to make contracts legal. In 851 BC, Abu Zayd Hasan, an Arab merchant in China, witnessed Chinese merchants using fingerprints to authenticate loans.
That means that though the story of Hop Sing, Little Joe, and the fingerprints was fiction, it could have happened. I just love cool historical facts, especially when they involve crime solving.