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The story of Will and William Tell, two unrelated Black men who were prisoners at Kansas’ Leavenworth Penitentiary, has become a legendary tale in forensics science lore. The two men looked nearly identical and because of it, they ultimately caused the prison industry to shift from an outdated facial recognition system to using fingerprints to identify inmates.

In 1903, Will Tell entered the prison and was processed by a clerk via a photograph. The clerk was puzzled as he believed him to be William Tell, who he’d processed two years prior. The facial features of the Tell men were so strikingly similar and they even shared the same measurements under the Bertillon system, developed by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon based on the measurements of features.

Because of the flaws of the Bertillon method, Leavenworth and prisons from around the country began to move to the fingerprint identification model. Some accounts allege that the Tell case moved the entire country to use fingerprints in other industries as well. In 1905, the U.S. military began adopting the practice and three years later, the first fingerprint card was unveiled.

According to some historical accounts, it was later revealed that the two were actually identical twin brothers.

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Little Known Black History Fact: Will And William West  was originally published on