Legal authorities commonly use fingerprints today to identify and convict criminals. It wasn’t always so.
In 1893 sheriff’s deputy J. K. Mount had the job of making sure the Chinese citizens living in Coos County paid their poll taxes. Oregon had recently passed a law requiring them to pay special taxes. After paying the annual tax, they received a receipt.
It wasn’t easy for deputy Mount because he had difficulty distinguishing one Chinese man from another, something the Chinese used to their advantage, trading receipts back and forth. Discouraged, Mount searched for a way to foil the practice.
After reading about the discovery that every person’s fingerprint was unique, Mount had a brilliant idea. He bought a simple stamp pad from the general store and began requiring each payee to put his thumbprint on the back of the corresponding receipt. Even though he didn’t really have any way to read the prints, the Chinese didn’t know it and very quickly stopped sharing receipts out of fear they would be arrested and deported .
Coos County tax collections increased, Tom’s superiors were pleased, and a novel use of fingerprinting was invented.
Source: Coos County News, October 1, 1893.