Dispatches From the South – When Blogs Collide

It’s always a crap shoot when you agree to meet up with another blogger.  I’m happy to say, however, that I have a good track record (and still regret not being able to meet up with Jonathan) and that today was no exception.

I used the last of my 2009 holiday allowance (25 days a year, oh yes!) to travel up to London to meet up with Brit Fancy and her non-bloggy friend.  They were both charming, attractive young ladies and it did this old man good to be in their company.

The hastily agreed meeting was arranged some time ago and there was ample opportunity for something to intervene or for me to forget what day it was scheduled for, but I managed to get to the agreed location at the appropriate date and time.  The only problem was, the restaurant I was planning for us to have breakfast in was closed.  The put me in the unenviable position of having to rely on someone from America to figure out where I, someone who should have such knowledge, should take them for breakfast.

In the end we found ourselves in a Harvester in Victoria station.  It could have been worse; my only idea was McDonald’s.

We had a great chat about all our travel experiences, the amazing co-incidence that more or less brought us together and the relative merits of Facebook versus Twitter (namely that Facebook is sort of useful but Twitter is stupid).  It was an easy conversation, free of awkward pauses, but I’m afraid this won’t be much of a review as that is all I feel comfortable saying about it.

In this day of full and instant access to personal information, some people still wisely chose to keep their details to themselves.  So despite the fact that we traded stories of our lives and took photos of each other to commemorate the meeting, I am not going to reveal any of that here.  Instead, I’ll tell you about the amazing co-incidence:

In another life, I was a fingerprint historian.  That was some time ago, when I was employed at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services as an Identification Specialist and serving as the unofficial agency archivist.

The history of fingerprinting captivated me from the start and my years of research uncovered many amazing facts.  One of the most intriguing was the revelation that Sir Henry’s account of how he devised the Henry System of Classification was, to be kind, an imaginative detour around actual events.  Henry originally claimed to have come up with the system while on a train journey across India, adding that, because he had no paper to record his flash of brilliance, he had to jot notes on his shirtsleeve.  Although in later years he did admit that it was his Indian assistants who actually came up with the formula, no other facts were available to me at that time.

Who were these unsung assistants?  How did they do it?  How did they feel about not getting credit for their work?  Were they ever credited with inventing the system?  I can’t say these questions haunted me, but they did occur to me.  With the limited research tools available at the time, however, I was unable to answer any of them.  Eventually, I moved on—to a different agency, different job, different continent, and a different life.

I live in England now.  The move was sudden, unanticipated and infused with humor.  So I wrote a book about it.

In the meantime, the Internet burgeoned at an unbelievable rate and unheard of phenomena like blogs and social networks were running riot in cyberspace.  I decided to use them to help promote my book and one of the methods I chose was to “tour” the Internet by writing articles for other blogs.  A number of people took up my offer.  One of them was Brit Fancy (we’re fond of pseudonyms here in the blogsphere), who ran a UK-centric website from St, Louis, Missouri.

When the time came to write the article for Brit Fancy, I had a hard time coming up with anything of interest involving St. Louis.  Then I remembered the Exhibition of 1904, where Captain James Parke and his American System of Fingerprint Identification were overwhelmed and out-maneuvered by John Ferrier and the Henry System of Fingerprint Classification.  In the article, as a point of interest, I mentioned how Henry had usurped credit for the system from his assistants.  The article went out to Brit Fancy and I imagined a puzzled pause at receiving something so esoteric.  But instead, I received an entirely different reaction.

Brit Fancy, it turned out, was the great-great-granddaughter of Azizul Haque, the Indian assistant who devised the Henry System.  Needless to say, she was surprised by my interest in such an obscure subject, and gladly told me her story:

“My parents moved from Bangladesh to the states when they got married. I was born in Oklahoma and we later moved to St. Louis.

“I have a general interest in the past, but in looking into my family history I was frustrated at the lack of written records from my homeland.  Then one day, about five years ago, my grandmother said to me, ‘I know something about one of your ancestors,’ and proceeded to tell me about my great-great-grandfather, Azizul Haque.”

It’s difficult to say how I felt about stumbling upon this information after all this time.  On the one hand, it just seemed natural to find yet another piece of the fingerprint puzzle, but when I thought about the billions of people in the world and how I randomly connected with one who just happened to be related to someone I casually mentioned in my article and started tallying up the odds of that happening, my head would begin to hurt.

Eventually, if only to ease my aching head, I moved on with my tour.  Then, last week, I heard from Brit Fancy again.

Since finding out about her great-great-grandfather, Brit Fancy has been helping, in her own small way, to gain some recognition for Haque and Bose.  She wrote to tell me that the efforts she and others had made have finally paid off and that the UK Fingerprint Society is remembering Haque and Bose by setting up an award in their honor.

It took over 100 years, the dedication of a pair of researchers and the surprising discovery of an unknown celebrity in her family tree by a tenacious history major, but Henry’s assistants have finally received at least some recognition.

And, most importantly, it gave me something to write about.


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