Guilt, Innocence, Faith, Forensic Science, and the Lincoln ForgeriesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Mark Twain once wrote that travel makes a man wiser but sadder. He was, of course, speaking about geographical travel, although I've discovered that the same thing could be said about some intellectual voyages. At least that's what I have learned from my itinerary through the world of forgery of rare historical and literary material and forensic science. I can pinpoint the day that I last felt unshakably confident about the integrity of the rare documents that circulate within the community of libraries, collectors, and dealers. It was, appropriately enough, April 1, 1988. I had been, and still am, an Americana specialist, in other words, a curator, at the largest library in the world and had examined thousands of books and manuscripts both for my own research and for such library purposes as acquisition, conservation, and exhibition. If I didn't know what was authentic, who did? On April 1, I received a call from a New York City rare book dealer who had what he thought might be The Oath of a Freeman (1638), the first thing ever printed in North America, of which there was no known copy.
It was an exciting time. I had read about The Oath of a Freeman for years, and now it might be close to landing in my lap—but not without a price: $1.5 million. Before going to New York to bring it back to the Library of Congress for historical and scientific testing, I talked to our Conservation Office and was admittedly impressed with the sophisticated tests that would allow measuring minute amounts of elements in the ink and paper. No forger could outwit those tests, I thought to myself.
Before I left for New York, a conservator handed me an ultraviolet light to shine on the document. "What's this?" I asked? "An ultraviolet light," was the response. "What do I look for with it?" I queried. "Look for something unusual," I was told, although it was clear from the look on my helpful friend's face that she was as uncertain as I was about what "unusual" meant in this situation. I left Page [End Page 27] with the hope that whatever was supposed to be unusual was so very unusual that I might have a sporting chance of recognizing it when I saw it. I won't recapitulate the entire story here; it is told in my book The Judgment of Experts (1988).
To make a long story short, The Oath of a Freeman became a central piece of evidence in a murder trial and the largest criminal investigation in the history of the state of Utah. Authenticity would have almost certainly meant exoneration for the killer, evidence of forgery, his conviction. But proof of authenticity became an elusive goal, ever-shimmering on the horizon, ever-receding like some mirage, fervently sought but seemingly always out of reach.
I begin with this story for three reasons. First, it explains the origins of my interest in the subject of forgery. Second, it highlights the lack of knowledge about forgeries in the historical and curatorial worlds. There are no courses in the use of ultraviolet, for example, in graduate programs in history or library science. And how many collectors or dealers routinely use ultraviolet or even understand the applications of the technique? Third, the events that unfolded during the investigation allowed me to become acquainted with forensic document examiners, a group equally as complex and multifaceted as those associated with rare books and manuscripts. There are charlatan forensic document examiners just as there are unethical rare book dealers and curators who pretend to know more than they really do. However, forensic document examiners bring a new perspective to the work. When they examine a bank check for evidence of forgery, they know that their conclusions may be tested in court under cross examination by a motivated defense attorney.
My experiences during The Oath of a Freeman case led to my learning something about the techniques available to the forensic document examiner by being invited by the FBI and the Secret Service to take the courses they use to instruct their own document examiners. I had information to contribute to them, and they had much to teach me.
Among the first things I learned was not to dignify the forger, something we tend to do in the rare book and manuscript field. In my experience, historians are overconfident of their ability to detect forgeries; those in rare document areas are too admiring (although none of would us want to be duped ourselves); and those in the artistic fields are sometimes blithely unaware and even unconcerned. Consider the following quotation from Alfred Lessing's "What Is Wrong with a Forgery?": "The plain fact is that aestheti- Page [End Page 28] cally it makes no difference whether a work of art is authentic or a forgery, and, instead of being embarrassed at having praised a forgery, critics should have the courage of their convictions and take pride in having praised a work of beauty." 
Those in the library and related fields go to another extreme, almost as detrimental to achieving historical accuracy as Lessing's attitude, that glorifies the forger. Nicholas Barker of the British Museum, Britain's national library, writes in his essay "Textual Forgery" that "Fake—the word conjures up an image of the cunning craftsmen at work, making or marring an object, with intent to deceive the innocent or ignorant viewer."  Characterizing the victim as negligent in learning the ropes or as just plain stupid and greedy plays directly into the hands of forgers, who are, in their own eyes, clever. They view all the people who think they are informed or in some way better are either dumb or corrupt, which allows forgers to justify their crimes.
Barker is not the only one to view the forger of historic material in heroic terms. Charles Hamilton dubbed the Lincoln forger Robert Spring a "wizard of the pen" and in various books called him an "expert," characterized his work as "superb," and believed that he was a kind of "poet."  The rare book and manuscript field is not unique in this matter. The art world is even guiltier, and art critics and historians often describe forgers in glowing terms, extolling their skill, knowledge, and connoisseurship. Americans love to see experts fooled, so long as it is not to their own personal disadvantage, and they love to see the underdog win. I do not have a psychological explanation for this syndrome, but the two impulses seem to me, on an instinctive level, to be of a piece. It is the old story of the little guy with no reputation pitted against one accustomed to privilege and fame.
In contrast to this romantic image of the forger, the criminologist has a distinctly different idea of the forger's personality, one that is definitely less flattering. To the criminologist, the forger is first and foremost a white-collar criminal. As with all criminals, greed, not Page [End Page 29] connoisseurship, is a basic concern, from the streetcorner punk to the petty accountant who hides nickels and dimes off the company's books. The types of activities in which a criminal engages depend on many factors, such as past history, opportunity, social environment, and personality. It is as unlikely that someone from the poor end of town would become an embezzler as it is that a high-priced lawyer would become a purse-snatcher. White-collar criminals possess some learned skill and commit what are classified as either corporate or professional crimes, the former performed in a corporate setting and including such actions as violation of tax codes or price fixing and the latter encompassing such wrongful acts as fraud with intent to deceive, false statements, or forgery.
The psychological makeup of professional white-collar criminals such as forgers is characterized by a severe sense of inferiority and feelings that their skills are underappreciated, which prompts them to want to usurp the authority of those whose skills the criminal senses the world does appreciate. At the root of this is nothing more complicated than professional jealousy. The result of this jealousy is that forgers endeavor to borrow established experts' reputation by trickery and consequently try to expand their own egos with this stolen expertise. Very often, the professional white-collar criminal does not need the money. Rather he or she seeks drama, whether public or private, in order to bolster a weakened sense of self.
The professional white-collar criminal is different from the corporate white-collar criminal by virtue of a sense of right and wrong. The first will admit to wrong-doing although add a mitigating circumstance as a justification; the second, however, always maintains innocence. In the case of forgers, a sense of superior but unjustly unrecognized expertise provides self-justification for taking advantage of inferior, more acclaimed experts or ignorant collectors. Such people, the forger thinks, will not miss the money and are too ignorant to appreciate the authentic documents they have, which the forger can truly appreciate but perhaps not afford.
It is impossible to directly relate this psychological profile of the professional white-collar criminal with that of the typical Lincoln forger. No Lincoln forgers—in fact, no rare book and manuscript forgers—have left any archives or autobiographies, as far as I know. Unlike the art forgers, who have contributed innumerable and elaborate accounts of their wrongdoings, they are a furtive lot. But if we accept the criminologist's assertion that all forgers or professional white-collar criminals are alike, then one of the art forgers' memoirs should suggest the typical Lincoln forger's attitude. A Page [End Page 30] memoir by Eric Hebborn, Drawn to Trouble; Confessions of a Master Forger, is useful in this respect. Hebborn was born in Great Britain into a family of modest circumstances, attended art school with little success, and, when later asked by an art dealer to copy the painting of a well-known artist, embarked on a career of a forgery after learning that the dealer sold the copy as an original and sold it for a high price.
In the Prologue to the book, Hebborn relates a story that serves as a virtual metaphor for his life, using the name of Vincent Van Blank as a pseudonym. We should not overlook that using the name "Van Blank" is symbolic of the kind of inferiority that criminal psychologists describe as characteristic of the professional white-collar criminal. Hebborn writes, "Although Vincent was a genius nobody had noticed the fact, and the art critics, dealers and collectors were unanimous in their total disregard of him and his masterpieces." Van Blank decides to paint a Leonardo Da Vinci, bake it, age it, and then discover it in the outhouse of a titled lady, to whom he promises a percentage. His implication of her complicity in this scam provides justification for his forgery. If the presumably virtuous establishment is willing to turn its head, why shouldn't he? Hebborn continues, "An expert was called in to examine the find, and to everybody's delight declared that here was a genuine Leonardo of the highest quality.... The day of the sale came, and Vincent's masterpiece fetched the gratifying figure of a million pounds. It was sold to a great public gallery where it was exhibited for over a decade to adoring crowds who never failed to fall for the magic of the expensive picture." This statement also follows the criminologist's profile of the forger: the assuming of the expert's authority by tricking them shows his contempt for, to return to Nicholas Baker's words, the innocent and ignorant crowds.
What else can individuals in the rare book and manuscript fields learn from those with a forensic background? The first thing to know is that we should be less sure of ourselves. One often sees those interested in historical manuscripts, be they dealers, collectors, or curators, take a brief look at a signature or a letter and proclaim it to be, for example, in Lincoln's hand. There are some individuals who claim to have what could only be said to be astonishing confidence in their abilities to detect authenticity. In The Hitler Diaries Charles Hamilton boasts that his "feel test" Page [End Page 31] can distinguish between a genuine and forged document in "two or three seconds" or by inspecting only a "half dozen words." Hamilton on at least one occasion before the publication of The Hitler Diaries described his "feel test" in his Retail Catalogue A (1984). The first step is to hold the document upside down in order to get a better feel for the writing. As I have written elsewhere, it would be better to hold the document right side up and stand on your head for health purposes in order to gain at least some benefit from this procedure.
Document examiners are much more careful in their examination. They never compare the signature or handwriting they are inspecting to some memory they have of the formation of the writing. They always compare what they call the questioned document against actual copies, not photocopies, of known samples of writing of the person who may have produced the questioned handwriting. Although forensic document examiners involved in contemporary criminal cases can gather known exemplars either directly from the suspects or, through the use of a subpoena, from already existing records, they seldom has such a luxury. A questioned sample of Lincoln's writing must be compared against samples of his writing dating from the same time period and found in a collection with unimpeachable provenance, for instance the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection at the Library of Congress, which Robert Todd Lincoln collected from the White House immediately after his father's assassination. Is it possible to compare a questioned document against a Lincoln signature purchased by an institution during the 1920s? The strict answer for the forensic scientist is no. There would be no direct link for such a document to Lincoln unless there was some earlier reliable provenance. Therefore, the document could not be used as an unquestionable standard of comparison for a forensic scientist.
Aside from learning that those who deal with historic documents frequently employ procedures that are not the equal of those used as a matter of course in the forensic document community, we also may benefit from learning how forensic document examiners express their opinions about authenticity. Lincoln specialists, to use one example relevant—but one that could be easily broadened to other figures and periods—seldom, if ever, qualify their opinions about whether a particular document is genuine. The answer is either yes or no and never maybe or probably. Forensic document examiners, on the other hand, frequently state their decisions by use of levels of opinions. That many opinions about the authenticity of a historic document should be stated in inconvertible terms is in no small part driven by the forces of the marketplace. A Lincoln carte-de-visite from the original plate is worth roughly $500, and a signed Lincoln carte-de-visite has sold for $32,000, graphi- Page [End Page 32] cally demonstrating the cost of a Lincoln signature. A carte-de-visite that Lincoln may have or probably signed is not worth some percentage of a carte-de-visite that Lincoln definitely signed. The market does not work in this manner.
Forensic document examiners find the identification of individual signatures to be among the most difficult of their duties, and one of the tasks that demands the most effort, at times requiring many hours of inspection. Extended writing is a much less onerous proposition because it is significantly less likely that a forger over several pages of manuscript could conceal the idiosyncrasies of his or her own handwriting and completely adopt those of the individual whose hand is being imitated. One of the central principles of forensic document examination is that almost everyone develops patterns in writing that differ from ideal schoolbook style or the manner of writing taught in school. The more distinctive these variations from schoolbook style are, the easier it is to link or not to link the handwriting under question with a particular individual. Often, it is more difficult for the forger to imitate that individual's handwriting.
The variations from schoolbook style that document examiners seek are subtle and tend to be difficult for a forger to duplicate in a manner characteristic of the natural and free handwriting that is the mark of authenticity. Among the variations are height relationships among various letters, the height and width relationships among various parts of an individual letter (such as the bowl of a y and the descending part of that letter), and the fashion in which various letters are connected to each other. No single one of these elements is likely to be decisive, but an accumulation allows the examiner to express a stronger opinion.
Lincoln's handwriting shows a number of such idiosyncrasies that are very helpful in identifying authentic documents written by him. I will not describe all of these elements. However, with the caution that I may be enlightening some future forger, I will describe a few to provide some understanding of the kinds of things a document examiner may scrutinize. In double l combinations that appear in words such as full or hall or doll, the second l is significantly smaller than the first. This relative difference between the height of the two letters in this combination occurs in almost every example that I found in Lincoln's writing. Of course, this characteristic is not unique to Lincoln's writing, and there are a few examples of double l's in examples of Lincoln's writing in which the two letters appear to be nearly equal in size. Page [End Page 33]
A good document examiner recognizes that such variations can and often do appear but does not base an opinion solely on one such recognizable pattern. He or she will identify others. For instance, Lincoln's terminal d's have a tail that is almost as high as the ascender in the d, an unusual but not necessary unique occurrence. In and of itself, it would not be sufficient to authenticate a Lincoln document, but taken with the formation of the double l combination, the strength of the case is increased.
Another characteristic of Lincoln's writing is that he almost always crossed his lower case t's from the right to the left, a practice that is alien to the twentieth century although not unique to the nineteenth century. Mary Lincoln, for example, often crossed her t's from the right to the left. However, again, when taken in combination with the flourish of the terminal d's and the double l's, a network of characteristics begins to emerge that increases understanding of Lincoln's hand. These are all subtle elements of an individual's handwriting, difficult to accomplish in a smooth, quick, and natural way by a forger, especially in combination with other elements that I have not mentioned and will not without a specific document on which to comment. The absence of any one of them in a specific word does not by itself discredit a document because natural variations do occur. But the absence of all of them or of a group of them in a significant number of instances augments the argument that the questioned document is not authentic.
It is only when all these variations from standard schoolbook practice can be found in a group of known writings by an individual and in a questioned document—and there are no unexplained differences between the two sets of documents—that a document examiner is willing to express an unqualified opinion of authenticity. When the network of patterns is consistent between the questioned document and the known documents but there are a few unexplained variations that may be accounted for by the fact that normal variations occur in everyone's handwriting, the document examiner will state that it is highly probable that the writing on the questioned document is the same as the handwriting on the known documents. That means that there is only the slightest possibility that the two groups of manuscripts were written by different individuals. When there are both significant similarities and significant differences between known handwriting and questioned handwriting or when only a small number of known samples with which to compare the questioned writing exist, then the document examiner is likely either to express no opinion about the authenticity of the questioned document or to say only that the questioned Page [End Page 34] writing may have been written by the writer of the known manuscripts.
The concepts of "no opinion" and of a severely restricted qualified opinion are important ones to understand for those in the historical manuscript field, for we seldom, if ever, hear them expressed. Rarely will a qualified document examiner go beyond such qualified judgments when analyzing an isolated signature. In such cases the professional document examiner seldom has enough evidence to offer an opinion that could not be challenged successfully in court. Yet unqualified opinions are routinely made in the historical document field about an individual signature, both in cases in which the autograph is thought to be authentic and those in which it is thought to be a forgery. And in some instances, the person examining the document, usually a manuscript dealer, feels confident enough when declaring an autograph to be a forgery that he or she will identify the forger.
Let me take this last point up first. The identities of forgers are not necessarily easy to identify. Based on my analysis of the situation, it is impossible to attribute most, if not all, of the unauthentic Lincoln autographs to any particular forger, if for no other reason than we have no significant groups of forgeries that we can trace through unquestioned provenance back to any forgers. For instance, in the New York Public Library there exists a Lincoln forgery file in which some forgeries are identified as by Cosey, some by Spring, and some by others. Yet the evidence offered for these positive identifications is overwhelmingly hearsay at best. Remember that none of these alleged forgers left an archive of either their natural writing or their efforts to copy Lincoln's script. If individuals in the historical manuscript field can learn nothing else from the forensic document field it should be that the rules of evidence require comparison of a questioned document, in this case a possible Cosey forgery, with known documents, in this instance forgeries that are without question done by Cosey. But if there is no group of documents that we are certain can be identified as being from Cosey's hand, how can anyone declare any particular forgery to be done by Cosey? The answer is that they cannot. In cases in which there is a limited amount of evidence, such as known Cosey forgeries, the document examiner must either express no opinion or severely restrict his or her opinion. It may be possible to say with some degree of certitude that a particular Lincoln autograph is not from Lincoln's hand by comparing it with a number of genuine Lincoln signatures, but the examiner cannot say that it was written by any particular forger. Page [End Page 35]
Furthermore, there would need to be a substantial number of these known forgeries to make it possible to classify possible variations in any individual forger's style of copying Lincoln's signature. One of the first principles of forensic document examination is that no one always writes exactly the same way every time when writing in a natural and free manner. It does not take much imagination to postulate that a forger must also have a range of variations in style of writing when attempting to forge a signature and that only by comparing a great number of these known forgeries can an examiner begin to comprehend what the acceptable range of variations might be.
I would also like to take up the issue of authenticating Lincoln signatures themselves and do this by using my own experience. A document worth approximately $150 was sold at a prominent auction gallery, and this manuscript document brought more than $60,000 rather than $150 only because it was purported to be signed by Abraham Lincoln on the first page. In other words, these fourteen letters on their own were worth more than $60,000, or almost $4,000 for each character—not a bad return for a few moments' work for an artistic, practiced, and careful forger. The consignor of the manuscript argued for the authenticity of the signature, but the purchaser had doubts, especially after consulting a few advisors. Because the seller and the purchaser were good clients, and each clearly had a self-interest in the outcome of the debate, an independent third party was needed, and I was asked to mediate the problem. Those questioning the authenticity of this Lincoln signature were basing their opinions solely on the basis that the l and n at the end of the word Lincoln were on the same baseline as the o, and in these individuals' experience these three letters were not on the same baseline in authentic Lincoln signatures.
In my view, such a conclusion could not be supported by the evidence of the sole observation about the alignment of these three letters. The pronounced difference in the baselines between the o and the l and the n in the word Lincoln that is found in many Lincoln autographs is not always seen in manuscripts in the Library of Congress's Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, giving rise that there are some normal variations when Lincoln wrote his name. Although the lack of a change in base line is worth noting, it is not conclusive in and of itself to state a definitive opinion.
When comparing this questioned Lincoln autograph with known Lincoln signatures at the Library of Congress, I did notice several other differences. The downstroke in several ascending letters, such Page [End Page 36] as the small l in Lincoln, showed some hesitation manifested by a shaky line quality, which would not be expected in a part of a letter that is made particularly rapidly and smoothly. Again, an unequivocal declaration of forgery is not conclusive, for Lincoln might, for example, have been writing on a wooden surface with a bump on it, which would explain the hesitation in the line quality. I also noticed that in the capital A in Abraham the known Lincoln signatures retraced the line from the foot of second downstroke of the A up to halfway up the line before making the horizontal loop that crosses the A. The questioned document showed a pen lift after making the downward second stroke in order to form the horizontal stroke of the A. Furthermore, the parallel alignments of the ascending portions of the letters in the questioned document were at a different angle than the angles of all of the ascenders of all of the known exemplars. Yet despite all of these observations, and a few more, I was able only to say that the questioned document may not have been written by Lincoln because there are only a the limited number of known autographs using both the full first and last name from the period in which the questioned document was purportedly signed. It is well know that Lincoln typically signed his name A. Lincoln and not Abraham Lincoln.
Some may argue that the same standards that are used to send criminals to prison may not be necessary for the rare manuscript market. The observations I made about the auctioned Abraham Lincoln signature canceled the transaction, although there certainly was not enough evidence to send anyone to jail. Nonetheless the purchase of a Lincoln autograph is a major financial transaction, and who would invest more than $60,000 in a real estate deal in which the question of title to the property is not quite clear? If individual autographs of Abraham Lincoln constituted a country's currency, I would strongly recommend to devalue it. We are, for the most part, taking these Lincoln signatures to be genuine on faith and not much more.
The saving grace to all of this, if there is one, is that Lincoln autographs themselves seldom affect the integrity of the historical record as do more substantial and extensive manuscripts. The purchase of a signed Lincoln carte-de-visite is an act of emotion in which the purchaser desires to be associated with a memento directly linked to Lincoln. It is not an intellectual act meant to document some part of the historical record. We all, of course, are to some degree attracted to the primary documents of American culture because of sentimental attachments, but whether such sentimental attachments are worth Page [End Page 37] the current asking price, especially when they can not be unquestionably guaranteed by hard evidence, I must leave to the marketplace. Yet in matters of the heart it is typical to discover that we are vulnerable to the manipulations, be they deliberate or unconscious, of others.
One of the best discussions in history about this vulnerability is the letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Maria Cosway when she and her husband were leaving France for their native England. Jefferson was without question infatuated with Mrs. Cosway and had spent much time with her while she was in Paris during his tenure as minister to France from the fledgling United States. He wrote his letter to her as a dialogue between his head and his heart, knowing full well that his feelings for her were, because of her marriage, not wise although nonetheless ardent despite their illegitimacy. Throughout the dialogue the Heart tries to warm the Head to the pleasures of the emotional life, while the Head admonishes the Heart to not be blinded and to weigh its options and decisions with a cold, unbiased, and skeptical scrutiny about their possible consequences. During one such exchange the Head scolds the Heart: "This is not a world to live at random in as you do. To avoid these external distractions, to which you are for ever exposing us, you must learn to look forward before you take a step which may interest our peace. Everything in this world is a matter of calculation. Advance then with caution, the balance in your hand. Put into one scale which any object may offer; but put fairly into the other the pains which are to follow, and see which preponderates."
My advice to those who handle Lincoln documents is to follow your heart, for much of the joy of dealing with original documents on a day-to-day basis is the emotional charge they carry, but also remember Thomas Jefferson's advice and never stop using your head. Page [End Page 38]
- Alfred Lessing, "What Is Wrong with a Forgery?" in The Forger's Art; Forgery and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Denis Dutton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 62.
- Nicholas Barker, "Textual Forgery?" in Fake? The Art of Deception, ed. Mark Jones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 22.
- See sketches of Cosey in Charles Hamilton, Scribblers and Scoundrels (New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1968) and Great Forgers and Famous Fakes (New York: Crown Publishers, 1980).
- J. P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 10:448.