Caught by His Prints

At 7:30 pm on 12 August 1906, the Bradbury family left their home on Thomas Street in West Perth and attended the Congregational Church service. Frank Bradbury (aged 12) was last to leave and shut the door behind him without locking it. At 9 pm the family returned to find the door wide open and the rooms and furniture ransacked. Missing from the premises was a silver chain and locket, a silver watch, a silver matchbox and one shilling and five pence.

Henry Plant in 1901. Courtesy of Prisoners of the Past and the State Records Office of Western Australia.

On the following afternoon Siegfried Bremer, a pawnbroker on Barrack Street in Perth, was working in his shop when he was approached by Henry Plant. Henry (giving a false name) had a silver chain and locket he wanted to sell. Siegfried asked the relevant questions and, finding the answers suspicious, decided to call the police.

On the following day Henry was found with the chain and locket in his possession and was arrested. He claimed that Thomas Garbutt had given it to him and two days later, Thomas was arrested. Both were charged with breaking and entering the premises of Reverend Charles Bradbury and stealing the silver items. Undefended, on 31 August 1906, they pleaded not guilty in the Perth Police Court. Once the evidence was heard, they were committed for trial.

Thomas Garbutt in 1910. Courtesy of Prisoners of the Past and the State Records Office of Western Australia.

On 6 September 1906 Plant and Garbutt appeared before Justice McMillan in the Supreme Court. Again, they were both undefended and pleaded not guilty. George Wood prosecuted the case and stated that the main evidence he would produce in court were Garbutt’s fingerprints. He noted that such evidence “had never before been brought against an accused person in that court.

Detective Sergeant Thomas Parkinson was in charge of the fingerprint department in the Detective Office. As part of his duties he attended the Bradbury’s home to investigate the robbery and conduct a search. In the Reverend’s study he found a polished cedar cabinet box and on the box he discovered four fingerprints. The fingerprints were developed, photographed by Detective Edmonds and were enlarged in order to create tracings. He produced these images in court along with photographs of Garbutt’s fingerprints which were taken at the Perth lockup.

For the purpose of comparison, witness put in tracings of the last three photos marked in red ink, to show the similarity between the prints made by the accused Garbutt’s hand in the impression taken in the lockup, and those photographed from the box.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 31 August 1906; Page 10; Alleged Peaking and Entering

He considered that the prints on the box and the prints obtained from Garbutt in the lockup were identical. Explaining the technical details to the jury he said, “If four prints of similarity are found between two prints compared they may, according to high authorities, be taken as being made by the same finger. In this case there are 31 distinct points of similarity between the prints.

For his defence, Plant tried to subpoena Reverend Burridge to prove that he was at his residence on the night of the 12th. The Reverend was no longer in Western Australia however he wrote a letter advising that “he knew nothing about the case.” Plant also gave evidence on his own behalf and claimed that the chain and locket was given to him by Garbutt while at the Grosvenor Hotel.

Garbutt addressed the jury on his own behalf. He admitted that he knew Plant but had not given him the chain and locket. Furthermore, he had nothing to do with the robbery. With regards to his fingerprints, he had no idea how they came to be on the box. The only explanation was that there was some kind of trickery involved and that the police had put them there.

His Honor, in his summing up, pointed out to the jury that this was the first occasion in Western Australia on which the system of finger prints had been introduced.

The Evening Mail (Fremantle, WA : 1905 – 1910); 6 September 1906; Page 1; Alleged Burglary

After a brief deliberation the jury found Plant guilty of receiving stolen goods and Garbutt guilty of housebreaking and stealing. Plant was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment with hard labour while Garbutt (considered by Justice McMillan to be the ringleader) was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Garbutt had a long criminal record and in the opinion of His Honour, “but for the finger-print identification could not have been brought to justice.

The fact that Garbutt was convicted almost solely on the evidence of his fingerprints meant that it generated a large amount of interest. Nearly a year later that interest was still there when The Mirror published an article about the use of fingerprints and included a photo of the original prints used in court.

The small photo on the top left showed the fingerprints obtained from the box while the small photo on the top right showed Garbutt’s prints taken at the Perth lockup. The fingerprints from the box were enlarged and printed on the left while the fingerprints taken by the police were enlarged and printed on the right. In the middle were the tracings of Garbutt’s forefinger, middle finger and ring finger.

Further explanation is unnecessary, as a superficial glance reveals the exact similarity of the most infinitesimal lines of the fingers, evidence, which alone was sufficient to convict the accused, who got five years’ imprisonment.

The Mirror (Perth, WA : 1905 – 1910); 4 May 1904; Page 6; A Study in Finger Prints

Fingerprint evidence was still relatively new and to see the police having success using it was deemed positive. According to The Mirror, at that point in time, the case was “…authoritatively stated to be one of the few isolated instances in the history of Australian criminalogy, [sic] in which the finger prints, unaided by the corroborative evidence, have led to the conviction of an accused person.

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