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Can you erase your fingertips?

Is it possible to destroy the fingerprints on your hands so you can't be identified by things you've touched?

4669 day(s) ago

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This is a common plot device in bad crime movies: A criminal burns his fingers with acid, destroying his fingerprints. This makes him invisible to police investigation techniques, letting him pull off a big job.

As silly as this sounds, this was seen as a serious threat in the 1930's. Several notable gangsters including John Dillinger, "Handsome Jack" Klutas, and a couple of thugs in Ma Barker's clan attempted to remove their prints using files, early plastic surgery, and acid. Dillinger's acid attempt was the most successful, resulting in much shallower grooves on his hand. However, he was still identifiable, and was eventually found and shot.

In a 1934 report requested by Herbert Hoover, surgeon Dr. Howard L. Updegraff stated that the only sure way to destroy fingerprints was by grafting new skin over the fingers. A few years later, Robert Phillips had the skin on his fingers replaced with skin from his chest, and it worked ...sort of. Despite obliterating his fingerprints, forensic scientists were able to identify him by the prints on his palms.

Can you destroy your fingerprints? Yes. A fingerprint is formed by dermal papillae, small bumps in the dermis that support the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin. These can be altered by deep skin injuries. In most cases the skin will grow back with a different print, but as shown with Dillinger, there's enough similarity that you can be identified. If you get a graft like Phillips, the new skin should stay in its original form, leaving you without fingerprints.

Can you evade the police with altered fingerprints? No. Fingerprinting is a small factor in the wide range of tools the police can use, ranging from DNA to eye-witness accounts.

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