Finger Prints Solve Detroit Morgue Tangle... On March 10, John Ryan died -- But It Wasn't John Ryan. Instead, the dead man was to have been one James Roberts, arrested in Massachusetts in 1920.
EARLY in March, a sick man was admitted to the Detroit Receiving Hospital for treatment. He gave his name as John Ryan, his age as 33, his nearest relative as a brother living in a small town in Pennsylvania.
The hospital authorities notified Mr. Ryan, of Pennsylvania, of the death of his brother, and asked for instruction as to the disposal of remains. A return wire directed that the body be released to an undertaker, to be embalmed and prepared for shipment to Pennsylvania. Funds were forwarded to cover expenses.
These instructions were carried out, the body arriving in the Pennsylvania town on Mar. 12.
When Mr. Ryan of Pennsylvania sorrowfully looked down on the face of the corpse, expecting to see his brother's familiar features, he was shocked. The dead man bore absolutely no resemblance to John Ryan. Naturally, he would not accept the body.
There was nothing to do with the corpse but reconsign it to the Detroit undertaker, who turned it over to the coroner of Wayne County. At first, it was thought that some mistake had been made, either at the hospital or the undertaker's, but investigation proved that there had been no error. The man, before death, had given the hospital authorities the wrong name and address.
This, of course, was the first appearance of the mystery. Had the man chosen a name at random and, by coincidence, selected the name and address of a real person, or, had he deliberately chosen the name of some acquaintance of whose connections he had some knowledge? In this case, what had his motive been ?
Lieutenant C. C. Carmody, Superintendent of the Identification Bureau of the Detroit Police Department, was immediately notified. He detailed Officers Toevs and Miller, fngerprint experts, to the case. These officers fingerprinted the dead man at the County Morgue, on March 13. Their next step was to compare the prints with those on file in the local bureau. This was done, but without satisfactory results.
Copies of the dead man's finger prints were sent to various police departments and penal institutions.
After several days, from Roscoe C. Hill, of the Massachu-setts'State Identification Bureau, came prints identical with those broadcast. These showed the dead man to have been one James Roberts, arrested in Massachusetts in 1920. His home address was given. From a western penitentiary came another set of prints, also identical, showing the subject, James Roberts, as a former inmate of this institution, and giving information that coincided in every detail with the Massachusetts data.
Names and addresses of relatives were thus learned and, on March 20, ten days after Roberts' death, he was identified by a brother-in-law from Massachusetts, who made the trip to Detroit, in response to a wire from the coroner.
Because he had served time in jail, Roberts was saved from an unmarked grave. A touch of irony lies in the fact that of the unnamed dead, only those, who have had police records, are identified and given decent burials by friends or relatives. What an argument for universal fingerprinting this thought contains.
1. "Mystery Corpse Identified", Finger Print and Identification Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2, August 1925, pages 5, 8.