The Story of Omaha Police Fingerprint Expert Emily Byram

Trained by the Army during World War I, Emily Byram Ruffner became one of the first female fingerprint examiners in United States law enforcement.

As the United States fielded a larger standing military, it needed a more reliable method of identifying service members, both to identify remains and to help capture deserters and criminals. The use of fingerprints for personnel identification, mostly to enlist men, started in 1906 and 1907. By 1917, the armed forces discontinued photographs and expanded fingerprinting to cover officers as well as enlisted personnel.

Eventually, the Navy’s bureau employed 115 fingerprint experts, 110 of whom were women. Other branches, such as the U.S. Army, also used women as fingerprint experts. In order to find and develop more experts, the Navy set up its own training school, which Byram attended. She then accepted a position with the Omaha Police Department.

She was almost certainly one of the first women to do this type of work within the police force. Most of her work with the OPD probably occurred in the Bertillon room, where fingerprints and photographs of criminals were taken. This is also where files were consulted for comparison of evidence. She also sometimes investigated in the field as well.

Byram led a life full of tragedies and adventure before leaving the workforce and assuming the role of a traditional wife. By all accounts, she was a resilient, driven woman who operated in male-dominated, highly complex, and potentially dangerous field that was critical to law enforcement operations. She was a pioneer, intent on serving the war effort and returning to her hometown to continue her public service. Her career was part of the growing trend of women entering the workforce, and an example of the progress made in World War I. The new training experience allowed women to pursue service as fingerprint examiners and gave them a competitive edge in postwar years. Overall, it established a new career area for the working woman of the twentieth century.

This is an excerpt of ‘“Woman Scans Skylight for Fingerprints”: The Story of Omaha Police Fingerprint Expert Emily Byram” by Don Arp, JR., which appears in the 2017 winter issue of Nebraska History, the quarterly magazine published by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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