October 31, 1941
Robert Pitts is arrested, though police attempting to fingerprint him are puzzled when his fingertips are devoid of ridges
Pitts was arrested during a wide scale round-up of suspected draft dodgers. Technicians were confused by the smooth smudges left in place of typical fingerprints. Pitts simply explained, “My fingers got burned in a fire.”
Pitts’ fingerprint card was sent to the FBI, who were able to find partial ridges remaining from the edges of the smooth pads on Pitts’ fingertips. The FBI was able to identify Pitts as Robert Phillips, a career robber who had recently been released from Alcatraz. Further investigation revealed the journey Pitts embarked upon to obliterate his fingerprints.
In May 1941, Dr. Leopoldo Brandenburg began a six week operation on Pitts’ fingers, though Pitts supposedly endured the procedure after being coerced by Brandenburg rather than for nefarious reasons. “Despite what others may say,” Pitts claimed, “I did not have the skin removed from my fingers so I could commit crimes without being detected. I did it because a New Jersey surgeon talked me into letting him experiment on such an operation. He wanted to see if the prints could be removed from a man’s fingers.”
The Asheville Citizen-Times described the painful process: “Pitts’ fingers of one hand were sliced to the bone and fixed to his chest for a graft of new — and fingerprintless — skin. Three weeks later, the fingers were cut from his chest and the operation was successful. It was repeated on the other hand, and eventually Pitts was left with ten finger-shaped scars on his chest.”
“It was like having your hands in a bed of hot coals,” Pitts recounted decades later. “The pain was awful.”
After Pitts’ true identity was revealed, he was transferred from Texas to North Carolina after he was linked to a warehouse robbery. Brandenburg was tracked down and eventually arrested, but not for the surgery, which was surprisingly not illegal. Instead, the doctor was arrested on a narcotics charge.
“Fingerprints.” Jim Fisher. Accessed: October 31, 2019. http://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/fire/print.html
“Who What Why: How durable is a fingerprint?” BBC. September 29, 2012. Accessed: October 31, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19740979
“John Dillinger- Fingerprint Obliteration.” Crime Museum. May 18, 2009. Accessed: October 31, 2019. https://www.crimemuseum.org/2009/05/18/john-dillinger-fingerprint-obliteration/
Nash, Jay Robert. Crime Chronology: A Worldwide Record, 1900-1983. 1984
“Convict Wishes He Could Undo Hellish Mistake.” Tucson Daily Citizen. May 31, 1965
Schechter, Malvin. “$40,000 Taken By Pitts, Russell In 1949 Holdup Still Missing.” Asheville Citizen-Times. January 12, 1958