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"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Fall 2003
Volume I,
issue 2


Dr. Anil Aggrawal is a professor of Forensic Medicine at the Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi-110002. His Website address is Send snail mail to S-299 Greater Kailash-1, New Delhi-110048. Phones (R): 26465460, 26291942, 26413101; (O) 23239271-4.

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History of Criminal Identification

             There was a big news in the newspapers on Wednesday, 23 July 2003, claiming that the two sons of Saddam Hussein Uday and Qusay were killed in a fierce gunfight with the American troops. Uday was 39 years old and Qusay was 37. Both were considered playboys in their country, and reportedly the public was very angry with them. They were killed in a six-hour gunfight on 22 July 2003, when US forces surrounded and stormed a palatial villa in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul. An Iraqi informant was supposed to have given the Americans information about them.

             On July 25, 2003, many newspapers carried the pictures of dead sons of Saddam. On the left side, the living pictures were given and, on the right, the pictures of the dead. The two pictures admittedly were looking very similar.

             Many persons have asked me, "How can we positively say that these were the sons of Saddam?" That faces can resemble other faces, we all know. We have all seen films in which duplicates -- stand-ins -- of famous film actors work. They have the same faces and mannerisms of the main actors. Thus similarity of faces is no guarantee that the person is the same. This problem of identification is really a great problem. Let us see how we solve it as forensic specialists.

What do we mean by Criminal Identification?

             Identification of a person means knowing positively who a given person is. In medico-legal practice it may be necessary to identify living as well as dead individuals in a variety of situations. In our day-to-day life, we do not face many problems with identification, and it might seem surprising at first glance that such a mundane thing as identification ever needed the help of science. We may meet a long forgotten friend, and may not be able to identify him in the beginning, but recollection of some events would help us recall who the person is. In fact, in daily life, we all take the identity of a person for granted, but this may not always be so. Imagine this situation: the owner of a vast estate and property goes missing. Several years later a person who looks very much like the owner claims that he is the actual owner, and wants to usurp the whole estate. How is one going to determine whether the person is an imposter? This is a problem of identification, and questions like this are sought to be answered here. The given situation is not hypothetical. Several similar cases, now considered as classics, have occurred in the past and have gained much popularity over the years. In fact these cases helped lift the science of identification to the levels where it is today.

History of Criminal Identification

             Identification of persons especially criminals has always been a problem with the police. In ancient Egypt, detailed descriptions of criminals were maintained by the police. In many societies, the problem of identifying wrongdoers was solved by branding and mutilating them. This made the work of the police that much easier. With this system, if a person was apprehended picking a pocket, the police would have no problem knowing whether he was the first offender or not. If he was already branded, it would be clear that he had already committed an offence, and he would receive a much more severe sentence. This practice persisted in Russia as late as 1860. Sometimes this branding is inadvertently done by the victim himself. For instance, in tribal Africa, even today, the traditional practice for a sexually abused woman is to bite off the lower lip of the assailant. This is obviously done in anger, rage and frustration, but it serves the good purpose of identifying the potential rapists, and one could perhaps keep herself off from such people.

             This method of inadvertent mutilation and branding of the criminal by the victim, at the time of commission of crime is perhaps pardonable. But deliberate branding of criminals by the police with a view of easy identification is certainly not desirable, and that too in the modern scientific era, when other modern and more humane methods of identification are available. This assumes particular significance for our country where the police quite lamentably, still resorts to old practices. Only a few years back, in our own country, in Punjab, cases came to light where some female pickpockets were branded Jebkatri ("female pickpockets") over their foreheads. This practice, although done for an apparently good cause (for one, the public may be warned of such pickpockets and for another, the police would have no problem in their identification later on), is obviously primitive, barbarous and inhuman.

             The first person to bring some sense to the methods of identification was Eugéne François Vidocq (1775-1857). He was the chief of the famous French police organization Sûreté. His method was not very exciting, but it was certainly more human. He, quite simply, depended on memory. The policemen of his times were prohibited from branding or mutilating any criminal. Instead they had to look at the criminal carefully and remember his facial characteristics as accurately as possible. Such a method had its own obvious limitations and did not have many takers.

             In the earlier half of 19th century, the Belgian statistician Adolphe Quételet (1796-1874), put forward his theory that there was a one to four chance of any two adult persons having the same height. This means that if 8 adult people are chosen and paired at random, only one pair would have exactly the same height. This method was based on the sound observation that the bone length does not change after adulthood. Although this method had some semblance of science in it, it obviously could not be used for criminal identification.

             The first rigorously scientific method of identification was adopted by the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914). He was shrewd enough to extend the method of Quételet. He reasoned-and quite rightly- that if bones do not change in dimensions after adulthood, why not take the measurement for another bone. Thus if he added just one more measurement, say the length of the trunk, the chances of finding exactly the same two measurements in any two individuals would be reduced to 42 or 1 in 16. The same logic could be applied further. If, say, 11 measurements are taken, the chances would be 411 or 1 in 4,194,304. Bertillon took 14 measurements in all, and according to his calculations, his chances of failure were only 1 in 268,435,456! He included such measurements as length of the head, circumference of the head, length of fingers, length of foot and so on. He called his system portrait parlé or "speaking likeness." His system of likeness spoke by itself, so to say.

             It would be interesting to compare the chances of failure of various existing methods of criminal identification. Methods like comparison of pubic and scalp hair, and comparison of teeth bite marks are used in sexual crimes such as rape and indecent assault.

S.No.Identification Method Chances of Failure
1Measurement of height
(Quételet’s method)
1 in 4
2Comparison of Pubic hair1 in 800
3Comparison of Scalp hair1 in 4500
(Bertillon’s method)
1 in 268 million
5Teeth bite marks1 in 2.5 billion
6Dactylography(Fingerprints)1 in 64 billion
7DNA Fingerprinting1 in 2 x 1022
Table 1: Various identification methods and their chances of failure.
It may be added that the total world population at present is close to 6 billion.

The Corpus Delicti

             Corpus delicti is a Latin term which was introduced in English in the early 19th Century. It literally means "the body of offence" (Latin word corpus means "body." Its plural corpora is used widely to denote a number of structures namely Corpora Amylacea, Corpora Cavernosa, corpus luteum, corpus callosum and corpus striatum. Other words derived from corpus are corpse, corps, corporal, corporate, incorporated, corpulent, corset, corsage, and corpuscle. Delicti comes from the past participle of Latin delinquere, meaning "to be at fault" or "to offend" -- from which English gets the word "delinquent"). The term "body" is used metaphorically here and refers to the "gist" or the "essence" of the offence. It refers to the whole aggregate or "body" of material circumstances that constitutes evidence that a crime has been committed. The corpus delicti in a murder case usually includes the body of the victim, and other facts which point towards death by foul play, e.g. a bullet found within a dead body, blood soaked clothes of the victim, a cigarette butt, tyre marks, blood stains and other trace evidence found at the scene of crime and so on. Drawings and photographs of the victim showing fatal injuries are also included in the term.

             Corpus delicti is a legal term which often turns up in murder cases. In murder cases, the main evidence is generally the corpse. Many people believe corpus refers to the murder victim’s corpse, and in fact it is this sense in which many people use it today, though the correct meaning of the term is "aggregate material circumstances constituting the evidence of an offence."

             Corpus delicti is discussed here, because identification of the dead body is one of its essential parts. Generally speaking, in a murder case, the sentence is not passed until the corpus delicti is fully established. This includes a positive identification of the dead. This is quite reasonable as otherwise an innocent person may be wrongly prosecuted for the murder of someone who was actually alive. A mutilated, putrefied, or an unidentified and unclaimed body may be used by unscrupulous persons to bring a false charge of murder against someone. However there is no law that a sentence can not be passed without the corpus delicti. It is merely a guideline for the courts. Murderers are usually under the false impression that without the corpus delicti, the conviction for murder can not be obtained. In other words, they believe that they can not be prosecuted if they disposed of the bodies in such a way that they could not be recovered. Cases have occurred where a sentence was passed even when the body was not properly identified, or even not found at all. In the case Ramchandra v State, AIR 1957 SC 381, it was concluded that "at the trial on a charge of murder, the mere fact that the body has not been found is no ground to acquit the accused. But in a case like that, strongest possible proof of murder must be insisted upon." The same observation has been made in several other cases.

             In October 1947, the actress Gay Gibson was returning home from South Africa aboard the ship Durban Castle. When she was reported missing from the ship on 18 October the captain put his vessel about and made a search. This proved unsuccessful, and the ship resumed its passage to England.

             Enquiries on board threw suspicion on to James Camb, one of the deck stewards. When questioned, he admitted being in Miss Gibson’s cabin, claiming it was at her invitation. They had sexual intercourse, during which she had a fit and became unconscious. He tried artificial respiration, but realized she was dead, and in a state of panic pushed her body through the porthole. The location was somewhere in the ocean off the coast of West Africa.

             However Camb could not explain satisfactorily why he did not seek help if the girl had suffered a seizure or fit as he had stated. The ship’s surgeon found scratches on Camb’s back and shoulders which were more consistent with rape, than with voluntary sexual intercourse. Traces of blood-streaked saliva on the bed-sheets supported the idea of death by strangulation. He was tried for murder and, although the body of Gay Gibson was never found, he was sentenced to death. However he did not hang because Parliament was discussing the abolition of capital punishment.

Identification of the living

             The case of identification of Saddam’s sons is that of identification of the dead. However, identification is usually required in living beings too. It can assume importance in a variety of medico-legal situations. The main among these are:

• Impersonation: When a person claims that he is someone who he is not, he is impersonating someone else. In other words, he purports to be someone while others (his relatives, neighbors, and friends) deny his claims.

• A person may assume the identity of a long time missing person, and stake his claim on, say, the property of the person whom he claims to be (The above two cases belong to this category). It is important to find out his real identity. He may or may not be the real person.

• A person who fraudulently appears on the behalf of some other, e.g. for appearing in an exam, interview, or for giving evidence in a court.

• Other cases of impersonation as in making of a passport, admission in schools, insurance claims, inheritance, and so on.

• A person hiding his identity: The situation can be the other way round too, as when a person claims that he is not the person whom others are taking him to be. For instance, some eyewitnesses may assert that they saw the person murdering someone, and that person asserts that he is not that person.

• Identification in a court of law: When the court asks the doctor to identify the person whose medico-legal examination he did sometime back. A doctor may have to examine a person for, say, determining his age. After some time (which could be more than a year at times), he may be asked to give evidence in the court relating to that case. The person whom the doctor examined is present in the court and the court may ask the doctor to testify (in order to avoid the possibility of a fraud) that he is the same person whom he examined. The doctor usually records some identification marks in his report, and he can compare those identification marks with those of the given person to assure himself that he is the same person whom he examined.

• Interchange of babies: When the babies have been inadvertently changed in a hospital nursery, it may become necessary to identify the correct baby belonging to a mother.

• Absconding soldiers: Identification may become very necessary in cases of absconding soldiers.

Identification of the dead

             Identification becomes important in the dead too as in the case of Saddam’s Hussein’s sons as mentioned above. There can be other situations too. Imagine a situation when a highly putrefied dead body is found in a forlorn place. The body is in such an advanced state of putrefaction that no one in the neighboring villages can identify the person. It is very important to identify the person if at all the police investigation is to proceed in the first place. In such instances a pathologist may sometimes be of great help. He may find, say, a strange looking tattoo on the forearm, or may be evidence of some old operation such as cholecystectomy. Facts like these can lead to positive identification of the deceased. Identification of a dead person may be required in the following circumstances:

• In recently dead persons: It is necessary when a dead body is found abandoned at some place, and no one has an idea who the dead person is, even though his features are perfectly recognizable.

• In long dead persons: The bodies of persons who have been dead for sometime may have decomposed making the features completely unidentifiable. This makes the identification impossible by traditional means necessitating establishment of identification by other means.

• In mutilated bodies: Identification becomes very important in mutilated bodies. Sometimes murderers intentionally mutilate a body so that it may not be identified. At other times, the bodies may get mutilated in accidents, and disasters such as aircraft crashes, fires, explosions, earthquakes and so on.

• In bodies which have been reduced to mere skeletons.


The Tichborne Claimant case

             This remarkable case of problems in identification came up during the last century in England. Sir Roger Tichborne (b.1829), heir to the large Tichborne estates in Hampshire, England, was lost at sea off Brazil in 1854 (when only 25 years of age). Eleven years later, in 1865, his mother, Lady Félicité Tichborne, received a badly spelled letter purporting to come from her long-lost son in Wagga-Wagga, Australia, asking her to send the money so he could come home. The lady was so grief-stricken that she at once believed that the letter was from her long lost son, and sent him the money. On receiving the money he, whom we may now call the Tichborne claimant, set sail for England in 1866. When Lady Tichborne finally went to see her son in his hotel in Paris, she was startled to see a 165 kg man facing him (Sir Roger weighted only 57 kg). Yet she was so grief-stricken and gullible that she accepted him as his missing son and allowed him a £1,000 a year until he could legally establish his claim. Surprisingly, he garnered enough support from the public, and large sums were donated to prosecute his claim. His case had a vast appeal for the working class, who saw in him a symbol of their own struggle to relieve the landed classes of their wealth. Many donations were given on the understanding that these supporters would be richly repaid when he won his case. When the case was opened in court on May 11, 1871, the world was divided into roughly two equal groups -- those in favour and those against the Tichborne claimant.

             During the case which dragged on for almost three years, the Tichborne claimant produced more than 100 witnesses who testified that he was the real Sir Roger. None was really close to the family, but they made a powerful showing against the 17 who spoke against him. The court even had to send a Commission to Australia, to find out about the antecedents to the Tichborne claimant. The Commission had little trouble in finding out that the claimant was actually a butcher named Arthur Orton, from Wapping, London, who had migrated to Australia in 1852. It is interesting to go through some of the identification data that was compared during the trial.

S.No Identification data The real
Sir Roger Tichborne
The Tichborne claimant
(Arthur Orton)
1Weight under 9 stones (57 kg) 26 stones (165 kg)
2Facelong sallow faceround face
3Hairstraight dark hairfair wavy hair
4Tattootattoo present on the left armno such tattoo
5Educationcould speak French fluentlycould not speak French

             The court gave its decision on February 28, 1874. He was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor of which he served 10, after which he was released on parole. After coming out from jail, he sold his ‘confession’ to The People newspaper for £3,000. But he eventually died penniless on All Fool’s day (1 April) in 1898, just at the time when fingerprinting was beginning to gain its firm hold all over the world. Undoubtedly, had this case occurred a few years later, the Tichborne claimant could easily have been nabbed by the then newly developed science of fingerprinting.

Bhowal Sanyasi Case

             Twenty-three years after the infamous Arthur Orton died, an extremely interesting case relating to identification came up right here in our own country, India. This old historical case of 1921 aroused much curiosity and interest in its time, and is regarded as a classic problem in identification. Murad Fyzee has written a fascinating book, A Prince, Poison, and Two Funerals, on the case, which involved the identity of a rich inheritor Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second son of Raja Rajendra Narayan Roy Bahadur of Bhowal estates in Dacca. He (Ramendra) went to Darjeeling in 1909, where he allegedly died of biliary colic. Twelve years later, in 1921, a Sadhu arrived in Dacca, and claimed that he was Kumar Ramendra, and claimed one-third share of the Bhowal Raj estate. He seemed to have a plausible explanation for his absence for 12 long years. According to him, he was the victim of a murder conspiracy. When he was in Darjeeling, he never died of biliary colic. Instead, he was fed arsenic, a deadly poison, by his enemies in order to kill him. Subsequent to administration of arsenic, he lost consciousness. He was taken for dead by his enemies, who then took him away for cremation. They laid his body on the funeral pyre, but just when they were about to lit the pyre, a heavy thunderstorm came, and all of them ran away leaving the body on the pyre as such. After the storm was over, some Naga Sanyasis came there who observed some respiratory and other movements in his body and retrieved him from the pyre. Thereafter he remained under their care, but -- presumably because of the combined effects of poison, mental trauma and suffering -- he became amnesic, and couldn’t remember who he was. He suddenly regained his memory after 12 years, and now he was here to stake his rightful and just claim over the Bhowal Raj Estate.

             For nine long years, the Sadhu kept trying to convince people that he was indeed the real Ramendra, but nobody would believe him. His main opponent was the widow Bibhabati Devi who was married to Ramendra. After the alleged death of Ramendra, she had inherited the whole estate, and would not part with any of her property. Finally in 1930, he filed a suit in the court of the Subordinate Judge of Dacca for restoration of his legal rights. The main contention of Bibhabati Devi was that the Sadhu was an imposter named Sundardas Naga, a disciple of a Hindu holy man from the Punjab and that her husband did die at Darjeeling in 1909 and that his body was duly cremated.

             During the case which dragged on for more than two years, a total of 1,539 witnesses were examined - 1,069 from the Sanyasi side, and 470 from the other side (defence). More than 2,000 photographs and documents were exhibited before the court. All possible means of identification were used. Finally the judgment went in favour of Bhowal Sanyasi. He was declared to be Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy and was declared to be entitled to the status and title of the second Kumar of Bhowal and to one-third of the property. The other party went in appeal to the Calcutta High Court, where the judgment was upheld. In those days, the equivalent of the Supreme Court was the Privy Council. The other party went in appeal to the Privy Council, which also upheld the decision of the lower court. However the Kumar died shortly after the decision of the Privy Council in July 1946! It is interesting to go through the various similarities between the Kumar and the Bhowal Sanyasi. It gives an idea how various identification data can be used for identification of a person. Going through these, one is inclined to believe that the Sanyasi indeed was Kumar Ramendra, the second son of Raja Rajendra Narayan Roy Bahadur. If he were an imposter, he certainly had taken care of mimicking even the minutest details!

S. NoIdentification data Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy
(The second Kumar of Bhowal)
The Bhowal Sanyasi
1Complexionpink and whitepink and white
3Hair formwavywavy
4Moustachelighter than hairlighter than hair
6Lipstwist on the right lower liptwist on the right lower lip
7Earsa sharp angle at the rima sharp angle at the rim
8Lobes of earsnot adherent to the cheeks and piercednot adherent to the cheeks and pierced
9Adam's appleprominentprominent
10The left upper first molar toothbrokenbroken
12Index and middle fingers of the left hand Less unequal than those of the right handLess unequal than those of the right hand
13A point of flesh in the lower right eyelid presentpresent
14Feetscaly, size 6 for shoesscaly, size 6 for shoes
15Irregular scar on the top outer of the left ankle presentpresent
17Syhilitic ulcerspresentpresent
18Boil mark on the head and backpresent present
19Operation mark near the groin present present
20Tiger claw mark on the right arm presentpresent
21A minute mole on the dorsum of the penis presentpresent

             In addition of the above, the photographs of the two were very similar. Their gait, voice, and expression were also exactly similar. Fingerprinting was well-established by the time the Sanyasi case occurred, but for some obscure reason, this technique was not utilized. Perhaps the fingerprints of the real Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy were not available, he being absent for a period of almost 12 years. There is little doubt that if the science of fingerprinting had been used, the case would have been solved in no time.

             There are remarkable similarities in the two cases, yet there are stark differences too. Both the claimants resurfaced after a long gap of "their" initial disappearance, the Tichborne claimant after 11 years, and the Bhowal Sanyasi after 12 years, and both claimed amnesia to explain their long silence. In both cases the so-called "accessory" identification data (which is not 100% conclusive) was used to establish identification. In Tichborne’s time, the science of fingerprinting was not established at all, but in Bhowal Sanyasi case, it was perhaps not used because the fingerprints of the real person were not available in the first place.

             The differences are quite interesting too. In the Tichborne case, the surviving relative -- the mother -- of the claimant firmly believed that the claimant was indeed her son, and defended him tooth and nail. She even allowed an annual grant of £1,000 to him. In contrast, Bibhabati Devi, the wife of the Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy refused to accept the Bhowal Sanyasi as her long dead husband. Despite this attitude of the surviving relative, the courts gave differing judgments. In the Tichborne case, the court opined that the Tichborne claimant was an imposter, while in the Bhowal Sanyasi case, the court opined that he indeed was Kumar Ramendra Narayan Roy.

             Cases like these stirred the imagination of the whole world in those times. Indeed, they added a touch of romanticism to that era. It was a time when any trickster with a fair amount of skill and confidence could come forward and pose as someone who he wasn’t. Today, science has taken most of the fun out of such questions of identity. With the development of fingerprinting, and the more recent popularization of DNA profiling, it is extremely doubtful, if cases like these would ever surface again and cause so much controversy.

Copyright 2003 by Anil Aggrawal

The Web Mystery Magazine is an on-line quarterly journal dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. The Web welcomes well-researched, well-written articles and reviews. Writers are invited to send letters and inquiries to


Quarterly by
web mystery magazine

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott


Copyright 2003,