MONMOUTH, Ill. — Fingerprinting of criminals was developed by Scotland Yard, but brought to the United States by a one-time Monmouth resident, who later built the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth and became an internationally respected leader in prison reform.
Robert Wilson McClaughry was born to a prominent farmer in Fountain Green, Ill., in 1839. Evidence of his future leadership potential emerged at the age of 14 — when lost in a snowstorm on the prairie near Blandinsville, he endured a night-long battle with wolves in defense of his horses. In 1856, McClaughry enrolled in the newly founded Monmouth College, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Madden, daughter of prominent Monmouth attorney James G. Madden.
After graduating from the classical course in 1861, McClaughry remained at the college as a tutor for a year, before moving to Carthage, Ill., where with his brother-in-law he purchased the Carthage Republican newspaper and became a journalistic crusader for preserving the Union. During this time, he became a leader in Republican politics and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln.
Two months after marrying Elizabeth in Monmouth, McClaughry sold his share of the newspaper to his brother-in-law for a dollar, and at the age of 22 enlisted as a private in Company “B” of the 118th Illinois volunteer infantry. He was immediately elected captain of his company, having attained proficiency by study and drill in military tactics while a student at Monmouth.
Before the regiment left Camp Douglas at Springfield, McClaughry was promoted to major. He fought with his regiment in Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, then transferred to the Department of the Gulf, during which he was invalided home from New Orleans. Before rejoining his command he was ordered on recruiting service by Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, until continued ill health caused him to be transferred to the pay department and stationed at Springfield, Ill.
In 1864, McClaughry canvassed the state during a month’s furlough from the army, urging the reelection of Lincoln. Immediately following the war, he was elected clerk of Hancock County, serving for four years. In 1869, he became superintendent of a stone quarry, providing materials for bridges at Keokuk, Iowa; and Quincy, Ill., as well as the Illinois State Capitol. That success led him to a larger venture in quarries at St. Genevieve, Mo., from which he provided stones for the Eads Bridge at St. Louis.
While living in St. Louis, scarlet fever ravaged the McClaughry family, taking one little boy. McClaughry himself developed serious pulmonary symptoms and he gave up the business, moving to Monmouth in 1872, where he studied law under his father-in-law. The family, it is believed, resided at 207 S. Eighth St. in a home they purchased in 1880, but never again occupied.
In 1874, McClaughry was appointed warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. He immediately began a reorganization of the institution, based on new theories of penology that sought to understand the psychology of inmates and offer remedial rather than retributive treatment. A Swiss clerk at the prison translated for him a method of anthropometric measurement for the identification of criminals, developed by a French criminologist. Over the next 14 years, Joliet developed a reputation as one of best prisons in the United States and became famous throughout the world.
While at Joliet, scarlet fever again attacked the McClaughry family, taking two more sons.
McClaughry briefly became superintendent of the reformatory at Huntington, Pa., before Mayor Washburne of Chicago in 1891 demanded he be called to the position of chief of police in order to prepare the city for the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. For three years he labored to clear the city of criminals and gamblers, many of whom were in league with Chicago politicians.
After the close of the fair, Gov. Altgeld appointed McClaughry general superintendent of the prison at Pontiac, a position he held until 1897, when Gov. Tanner insist he return to Joliet to rebuild its reputation.
In 1895, he was commissioned by President Grover Cleveland to represent the United States at the International Prison Congress held in Paris. While abroad, he was invited to visit and inspect British and Irish prisons, following which he made recommendations that resulted in reform. In return, McClaughry learned fingerprinting techniques from Scotland Yard and helped introduce them to the United States.
In 1899, after being courted long and hard by the U.S. Justice Department, McClaughry agreed to become warden of the new federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. For the next 14 years, he put his full energy into building that prison, finally retiring in 1913 at the age of 74.
A year after the death of his wife in 1914, McClaughry married her sister, Emma Madden. The couple retired to Chicago, where McClaughry died in 1920. Services were held in Monmouth at the home of college president T.H. McMichael and he was buried in Monmouth Cemetery.
McClaughry’s interest in criminal reform rubbed off on his entire family. His sister-in-law, Maria Madden, became matron of the women’s department at Leavenworth, and also a nationally known criminologist. His son Matthew became chief of the identification of criminal bureaus at the Joliet penitentiary and one of the most knowledgeable fingerprint experts in the country. His son Charles , who served as engineer at Joliet while McClaughry was warden there, later became deputy superintendent of the house of corrections at Chicago, deputy warden of the state prison at Michigan City, Ind., and warden of the state prison at Waupon, Wis.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.