Just after 2 a.m. on the night of September 19, 1910, Clarence Hiller woke to the screams of his wife and daughter in their home at 1837 West 104th Street in Chicago. After a spate of robberies, residents of this South Side neighborhood were already on edge. Hiller, a railroad clerk, raced to confront the intruder. In the ensuing scuffle, the two men fell down the staircase. His daughter, Clarice, later recalled hearing three shots, followed by her mother screaming upstairs. Neighbors came running but the man had fled the home, leaving a dying Hiller by his front door.
The unknown assailant didn’t make it far. Thomas Jennings – an African-American man who had been paroled six weeks earlier – was stopped a half-mile away wearing a torn and bloodied coat and carrying a revolver. But it was what he left behind that would be the focal point of his trial—a fingerprint from a freshly painted railing that he used to hoist himself through a window at the Hiller house. Police photographed and cut off the railing itself, claiming it would prove the identity of the burglar. In the eyes of the court, they were right; Hiller’s murder would lead to the first conviction using fingerprint evidence in a criminal trial in the United States. At times controversial, this method of solving cases endures more than a century later.