Will & William Wests – The Baffling Case Of Two Unrelated Identical Inmates

There are few people in the field of identification who do not know the story of Will (William) and William West, two inmates at Leavenworth Penitentiary, in the early 20th century.

Will (William) and William West

Both men were sent to Leavenworth Prison at the same time, and after some confusion, the records clerk realized they had two prisoners with the exact same name who looked exactly alike. Their case played a role in the adoption of fingerprints as a means of identification.

The Strange Story Of Will & William Wests:

For over 100 years, the story of Will West and William West has been retold, sometimes as a fable and other times as history. As a result, the story has been twisted and rewritten numerous times, with varying levels of detail. However, at its core, the story remains the same:

Picture file of Will West at Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1903.
File photo of William West.

The man in the photograph above was called Will West, and the man below was called William West. They were both sentenced to jail at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas more than 100 years ago.

When Will West arrived at the prison in 1903, the records clerk, M.W. McClaughry, was confused because he believed he had processed Will two years earlier.

When asked, Will West denied having been imprisoned there before, but Mr. McClaughry used the Bertillon instruments to measure him anyway. He knew that criminals were often reluctant to admit to past crimes.

As Mr. McClaughry suspected, when he checked the formula derived from West's Bertillon measurements, he found the file of a William West with practically identical measurements and a photograph that appeared to be that of the new prisoner.

However, Will West was not being evasive about a previous visit to Leavenworth. He insisted to McClaughry that it was not him: "That's my picture, but I don't know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before."

When Mr. McClaughry looked at William West's record card, he discovered that it belonged to a man who was already in the penitentiary, serving a life sentence for murder, and had been admitted there two years earlier.

Afterward, the fingerprints of Will West and William West were taken and compared. To Mr. McClaughry's surprise, tAfterward, the fingerprints of Will West and William West were taken and compared. To Mr. McClaughry's surprise, the patterns had no resemblance to each other and were completely different.

Both the fingerprints patterns had no resemblance to each other and were completely different.

Here's How The Case Of Will & William Wests Sparked The Use Of Fingerprints As Identification:

The "West Brothers Case" exposed the flaws in the Bertillon method, and it wasn't long before the U.S. authorities turned to fingerprinting as a more reliable means of identification.

Scotland Yard's Sgt. John K. Ferrier was a pioneer in the use of fingerprints for identification. He met McClaughry at the St Louis World Fair in 1904, when he was guarding the Crown Jewels, which were on tour.

Ferrier told the U.S. prison officer about how Scotland Yard had been using fingerprinting for the past three years and emphasized its accuracy.

McClaughry's recommendation was accepted, and on November 2nd, 1904, the Attorney General authorized the implementation of the new fingerprinting system. Prior to this, in October 1904, Sgt. Ferrier visited Leavenworth Prison to provide instruction on the fingerprint system.

It appears that the authorities at Leavenworth were not aware of fingerprint identification until after Will West's arrival. After receiving instruction on the technique, Mr. McClaughry introduced it at the prison. America's first national fingerprint repository was established shortly afterward.

The First Use Of Fingerprints:

Sir William James Herschel took these fingerprints in 1958.

The use of fingerprints as a means of identification actually began in 1858 with Sir William James Herschel, Chief Magistrate of the Hooghly district in West Bengal, India. He asked locals to stamp their business contracts with their palms on a hunch that it would be a good way to identify people, not because he understood the science behind it.