Closing a couple loops: Why Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a child, and why the FBI considered his prints ‘criminal’

 

photo of child Hal Gatewood
Photo credit: Hal Gatewood at Unsplash

Before our big reveal later this month, I’d like to close the loop on a couple lingering questions I’ve had over the years concerning Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints. The first question, which you’ve probably been wondering about too, is: why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a young child? (I can now say with reasonable certainty that he would have been seven at the time.) The second question pertains to something you may or may not be aware of, since I haven’t really discussed it in detail up to this point. That question is: why were those prints designated by the FBI as criminal?

Why was Ronald Tammen fingerprinted as a child?

To arrive at the first answer, I was fortunate enough to find a resource by the name of Chris Gerrett, a tenacious history buff and president of the Fairview Park Historical Society. Fairview Park is a suburb that borders the western side of Cleveland and is only a few minutes’ drive from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and NASA’s Glenn Research Center. Before becoming the City of Fairview Park, it was called the Village of Fairview Park, and before that, Fairview Village, which is where the Tammens lived in 1941, the year Tammen was fingerprinted. You may recall that Ron’s mother told a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Ron was in the second grade when he was fingerprinted, which would have been during the 1940-41 school year. However, when I asked Ron’s older brother John if he recalled being fingerprinted as a child, he told me no, and he couldn’t remember Ron being fingerprinted either.

Based on the family’s address, Chris quickly determined that the Tammen boys would have attended Garnett Elementary School, one of two public elementary schools serving the village at that time. When I asked her if she knew anyone in Tammen’s age group who might remember being fingerprinted in grade school, she said she’d ask around.

Chris is the type of person who, when she tells you that she intends to do some digging and will get back to you, she means it. She was able to locate several people who remembered being fingerprinted as children in the early 1940s, and she even found fingerprint cards for two brothers. One was fingerprinted at age seven in 1942 and the other was fingerprinted at six in 1943. Why children in Fairview Village were being fingerprinted at a stage of life when they were still mastering basic skills such as shoe-tying and time-telling was still unclear. Some people floated the idea that it might have something to do with the Cold War, and the need to identify bodies after an attack. But the Cold War didn’t start until 1947, a couple years after WWII ended. Others proposed that it was because of the Nike missile sites that had been located in Cleveland, part of our nation’s defense against a potential Soviet attack. But again, the Nike bases were Cold War–related, and weren’t in place until 1955, long after 1941.

In another email, Chris passed along the happy news that the Fairview Park Museum, which is run by the historical society, had been offered a load of boxes containing documents from the Fairview Park Parent Teachers Association (PTA). The documents went as far back as 1928, she told me.

“The PTA seemed to handle all activities for the schools: wellness check, hearing check, eye check, parties, food drives, etc.,” she informed me. “We just might find that the PTA arranged the fingerprinting.”

I met Chris at the museum on a Monday morning in March, and we soon commenced rummaging through the boxes. After several hours of searching and a mid-day burger break at the local diner, we finally found what we were looking for. Under the heading of “Safety,” a mimeographed newsletter dated May 1942 had this to report:

“Finger printing of 253 pupils was done in Fairview Schools this past year. The P.T.A. wishes to express to Mr. H. A. Walton its appreciation of his willingness to give both time and service to the finger printing of our boys and girls.”

Newsletters for the spring of 1943 and 1944 also provided fingerprint tallies. Unfortunately, it appears that no statistics were made available for Ron’s year, 1941. However, perhaps the best find was from a newsletter dating back to October 1938. In it, under “Safety Department,” was an excerpt from an FBI publication on the importance of maintaining noncriminal fingerprints—citing reasons such as identification disputes, catastrophes, “kidnaping” (spelled the old-fashioned way), and amnesia. A second paragraph informs readers that fingerprinting in the schools would soon begin. Here’s the buried gem:

“Through the efforts of Mr. Henry Walton, Deputy Marshall [sic] of Fairview, who has made an extensive study of fingerprinting, we will soon be able to have any children in this community fingerprinted, a record of which will be kept in a ‘Personal Identification’ file, and a copy of same to be sent on to Washington, for their ‘Personal Identification’ files.”

Thanks to an old newsletter that might have been tossed out if not for Chris Gerrett, the Fairview Park Historical Society, and the Fairview Park PTA, we are now able to establish: 1) why Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at such a young age, and 2) why Ron’s prints were already at FBI Headquarters by the time he’d disappeared. It was all because of an industrious, forward-thinking Fairview Village cop. Much obliged, Henry Walton, much obliged!

You can read the relevant section here:

why fingerprint kids
For closer view, click on image.
Why were Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints designated as criminal?

Nowadays, any law-abiding citizen who has their fingerprints taken—federal employees, people in the U.S. military, people who undergo background checks for work or volunteer activities—is given a criminal identification number. I have one. My husband has one. If you’ve ever been fingerprinted, you have one too. In addition, as of February 2015, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is housing all fingerprints—the lawful and the lawless, the free and the incarcerated—in one electronically searchable database.

But back in Hoover’s day, things were different. From what I can tell, the term “criminal identification number” wasn’t in use back then, or at least it wasn’t the favored term. Rather, the number assigned to a person’s fingerprints was their “FBI number.” Also, there was a criminal file system and a noncriminal, or civil, file system. I came to these conclusions as I was perusing a 1963 FBI paperback, titled The Science of Fingerprints: Classification and Uses, which featured an introduction from J. Edgar himself. Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian, confirmed the two-file system in an April 2015 email to me, saying:

“A Civil Fingerprint File was begun in the 1930s and civilians, especially children (and their parents on their behalf), were encouraged to add their prints to it on FBI Tours, at expositions, and many other events. The idea was to have a collection of identification records to be referred to in the cases of missing persons, kidnappings, and massive disasters/tragedies.  It is through this program that Mr. Tammen’s prints were first taken.”

So, at a time when the FBI was keeping its civilian and criminal fingerprints separate, why were Tammen’s fingerprints eventually lumped in with the criminals? One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this is the November 16, 1959, form letter from Hoover to Tammen’s parents, which has the notation “crim” in front of Tammen’s FBI number. The October 30, 1961, letter has a “cr” notation above his FBI number, though, admittedly, that’s pretty cryptic, and we can’t be 100% sure of what it means. (Come to think of it, the “cr” might as well stand for cryptic.)

After taking a look at the November 16 form letter, Dr. Fox also concluded that Tammen’s prints had been filed with the criminals. In the same email, he hypothesized that Tammen was possibly arrested before he’d disappeared or even sometime after 1959, “likely around 6/1973.” He was only guessing though. He didn’t have proof.

I asked Ron’s family members if they knew if Ron had ever been arrested, and their answer was no. I then contacted law enforcement and clerks of courts in the cities and counties in which Tammen had lived or that were a short drive from Cleveland or Oxford, Ohio. I even contacted the attorney general’s office for the state of Ohio. I found no arrest records on Tammen anywhere, other than the ticket he’d received for running a red light in Oxford a month before he disappeared.

Another theory was that Tammen’s fingerprints might have been moved to the criminal files after the Selective Service changed his classification to 1-A and he failed to show up to the draft board for his physical. I conducted a review of documents for other men who violated the Selective Service Act of 1948 during that time period to find out if they were somehow marked criminal too, but it was difficult to find an apples-to-apples comparison. Words like fraudulent, forged, and stolen showed up in their documents—nothing that pertained to Ron’s situation, in my view. I also wondered why I was able to obtain their documents at all, since their Selective Service violations occurred before Ron’s, yet the FBI had destroyed Ron’s file more than 20 years ago.

Recently, I found two people who could speak more knowledgeably than most about the FBI’s fingerprint operation. They’d both worked in the former Identification Division, “Ident” for short, when Hoover was still in charge, though I don’t think they worked there at the same time. By then, the Identification Division was located at Second and D Streets, SW, in Washington, D.C.

Both individuals—who prefer not to be named—had some remarkable stories to share about those days. They talked about how tightly Hoover ran his ship. They spoke of how Hoover had established strict rules governing where employees could live, who they could see (Person A said they checked out her husband before hiring her), and how they should look on the job—their attire, their facial hair, their height, their weight. Person B recalled how his life’s goal to become an agent was almost sabotaged by the fact that he didn’t make the height requirement, which was 5’7” at that time (the same height as J. Edgar Hoover, according to Alexa). His sheer determination and knowledge of the subject matter, together with elevator shoes, eventually convinced Hoover and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, that he was up to the job.

Both Person A and Person B had experience handling the fingerprint cards, which was important but grueling work. Person A recounted how she and her fellow “Ident” employees would be assigned a fingerprint card, which they would classify according to the prints’ arches, loops, and whorls. They then searched among the other cards—numbering in the millions—for a possible match. They didn’t use computers back then, just their two eyes and maybe a magnifying glass. Of course, there was quite a bit of training involved. Of the two fingerprint files that they consulted—civil and criminal—the criminal file was always the first stop, since potential employers, local law enforcement, and Hoover himself would want to know immediately whether a newly arrived print belonged to a fugitive. As for possible mistakes, Hoover used the same rule as the sport he loved: three strikes and you were out.

It was Person B who offered up the most likely reason why Ron’s fingerprints would have been found in the criminal file. Backing Person A’s claim that the criminal file was the first place to look, he said:

“I think missing persons are placed in the criminal file because that’s the most active file. So, if you want to find the guy, and somebody gets arrested and a print comes in, it doesn’t get searched through civil files. It gets searched through criminal files.”

And there you have it. The explanations for why Ronald Tammen’s fingerprints were taken at the age of seven and then later maintained in the criminal file after he disappeared are probably that innocuous and ho-hum. But they’re also the explanations that, in my view, are most conceivable, which means we can now focus on some bigger matters. See you on the 19th.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Closing a couple loops: Why Ronald Tammen was fingerprinted as a child, and why the FBI considered his prints ‘criminal’

  1. I always enjoy these updates, Jen! I had thought the fingerprinting as a child could have been a proactive one (although certainly not one expected for that timeframe). Keep the tidbits coming!

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  2. Enjoyed the updates. I often think about the fingerprint issue and am glad you made some knowledgeable contacts who could shed light on this. Keep up the good work!

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    1. Thanks so much, Marilyn! I think the fingerprints are still important— especially the fact that the FBI expunged then in 2002. It’s just that I think we can rule out these two issues as being important/relevant. And, after this long, I’m happy to be able to rule something out!

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    1. Yeah, good question. I’m finding that there’s a lot that we won’t be able to answer, for a variety of reasons. It sounds as though you may be thinking along the same lines as the FBI historian. Unfortunately, we have no proof that the person known as Ronald Tammen was ever arrested.

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  3. Interesting chapter. Such a different time. Illustrating so much trust in the government. Fingerprinting children in case they need to be identified later…

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  4. Sorry, I’m just not buying the “maybe” reason for the crim designation. Hoover sent out a document with his signature with that obvious an error in it? No sale for me. I suspect you have something to say in a few days that makes that point moot, but still….

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  5. Per Kathy’s comment, I’m reminded of a scene in one of the Hardy Boys books where a man they’ve never met identifies them on first sight. When they ask how he knows them, the man claims he remember all pictures that he sees in the newspaper so that he could identify them at the morgue if needed. When I was 11, I didn’t realize how utterly hilarious that scene was.

    Which has nothing to do with this case, except some more long time reminiscing.

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    1. Lol! Sounds believable to me! So one other tidbit I’ve heard is that, at some point during the Cold War, some children were given dog tags, again, just in case they’d need to be identified. Scary times.

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  6. In % terms, compared to where you are now, how far would you have gotten in the investigation if Ron hadn’t been fingerprinted?

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    1. Actually, there’s a second road (of sorts) that I’ve been driving down in this investigation that doesn’t involve the fingerprints. That’s what I’m going to begin discussing on Thursday. I think the two roads are going to intersect at some point, but right now, they’re separate. So to answer your question, I’d say I’d be 50% of the way without the fingerprints.

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