Anonymous Letters And Disguised Hands

That mischievous and cowardly form of secret attack, the anonymous

letter, demands, unfortunately, a large amount of attention from the

handwriting expert. One of the most pleasant rewards that can attend the

conscientious and painstaking student of handwriting lies in the

knowledge that his art may sometimes enable him to bring to deserved

punishment the assassin of reputation and domestic happiness.

s a moot point, which has been discussed by legal authorities, as to

whether the handwriting expert is justified in tendering evidence and

opinions of a kind that may be said to belong by right to the criminal

investigator. By this is meant that the expert should not be allowed to

point out to a jury such pieces of circumstantial evidence as the

similarity of the paper used by the suspected person with other found in

his possession; that he ought not to direct attention to postmarks,

coincidence of dates, similarity of ink used, the employment of certain

words and phrases, and other external and indirect clues that point to

the authorship. It is urged that the whole duty of the expert is to say

whether in his opinion two or more writings are by the same hand or not,

and any expression of opinion outside this question is _ultra vires_.

The obvious answer to this objection is that it is impossible to limit

the expert in the selection of those points which appeal to and assist

him in forming an opinion. It is impossible to say what may or may not

suggest a valuable clue to a keen observer; and as the expert is often

called upon to give reasons for his opinion he is quite justified in

indicating the steps by which he arrived at it.

These circumstances arise more often in connection with anonymous

letters than with ordinary signature forgeries, for the field of

exploration and the material examined are so much larger. Details become

invaluable. The quality and make of the paper used, or a peculiar method

of folding and placing it in the envelope may afford a clue that will

put the expert on the high road to an important discovery. It is

impossible to say how or where a clue may lurk. The torn edge of a

postage stamp once supplied a hint that was followed up successfully. A

smudge on the envelope, that matched a similar one on a packet of

envelopes in the writing case of a person quite unsuspected, led to

conviction, as did a number of an address that was crossed out and

rewritten, the anonymous writer having, by force of habit, begun with

the number he was in the habit of writing--his own.

In short, the expert has, _nolens volens_, to assume many of the

functions of the crime investigator in dealing with apparent trifles,

and even if they do not always help him in reaching his goal, they

provide material for exercising the useful art of observation. Strictly

speaking the expert should, perhaps, ignore all outside suggestions as

to the authorship, and confine himself to saying whether or not the

specimens submitted are in the same handwriting; but in practice this

will be found extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the student

cannot shut his eyes to the accidental clues that invariably arise in

the examination of the evidence, and almost before he realizes it, the

most cautious expert finds himself trespassing upon ground that by right

should be the preserve of the detective.

The points raised here may, however, be safely left to be dealt with by

the judgment of the student as they arise. In the early stages of study

they will probably not present themselves with the same force and

frequency as later on, when they will be appreciated as providing useful

private pointers for guidance; and though at times they may put the

inexperienced student upon a false scent, he will have no difficulty in

detecting his error if, when in doubt, he follows the principles laid

down for the comparison of handwriting.

The first step to the examination of the anonymous letter consists in

procuring as many suspects as possible, which, as before advised, should

be lettered or numbered and put aside, until the original, which in this

case is the anonymous letter, has been studied and mastered. The

external evidence of which so much has already been said may or may not

be looked for.

Next proceed with the examination and comparison of the writings. It is

presumed that the student has prepared his notes of the peculiarities of

the original; he has now to search for them in the suspects. Suppose he

begins with the spurs and beards, having found them well marked in the

original. He will take any one of the suspects and examine it for a

repetition of the same signs. He may follow on with the rest of the

suspects, taking advantage of his memory being fresh on this point, or

he may prefer to exhaust one suspect of all its evidences before

proceeding with another; but practice and experience will decide the

best course in this matter, and influence the line of procedure.

Whatever method is pursued, all have the same object--the discovery of

the peculiarities of the original in one or more of the suspects, and

the student will be wise if he follow accurately the course laid down in

the chapter on "How to Examine a Writing."

It is generally safe to take it for granted that the writing in an

anonymous letter is disguised. There are occasions when the author

persuades another person to write for him, but only rarely; for the

perpetrator of a contemptible act is not usually brazen and indiscreet

enough to expose himself to others. The same reasons lend strength to

the presumption that the writing will, so far as its general appearance

goes, be as much the opposite of the author's usual style as his

ingenuity can make it. The extreme back hand occurs very frequently. It

seems to be the first impulse of the anonymous writer to avoid the right

slope. Even when the normal hand is a vertical, with a tendency to back

hand, the extreme left slope is often chosen. Fortunately, the assumed

back hand is one of the most transparent of disguises. If the student

has practised it, he will not need to be reminded how difficult it is

for a writer to conceal his mannerisms. By altering the slope he has

only stretched and lengthened his outlines, and the expert soon learns

to recognise them in their new form.

Another common disguise is the illiterate hand. This is quite as easy of

detection. It is no easier for the practised and fluent writer to

reproduce the shaky, irregular outlines of the illiterate, than it is

for the speaker of pure and cultured English to imitate the coarse

accent of the vulgar. However good the copy it always breaks down early,

and the sudden and unconscious firm, clear and geometrically accurate

stroke reveals the practised writer beneath the mask. Sometimes an

accurately placed punctuation mark supplies the necessary clue, for when

once the art of proper punctuation has been acquired it becomes almost

automatic. Even experienced novelists are caught this way occasionally.

They will introduce a letter, supposed to be the work of an illiterate

character. The grammar and orthography suggest the idea, but the more

difficult details of punctuation will be attended to, even to the

apostrophe that marks the elided _g_ in such words as "talkin',"

"comin'," &c.

Very difficult and troublesome is the letter written throughout in

imitation printed characters. The expert has to rely upon the curved

lines, accidental punctuation marks and unpremeditated flourishes and

hand-gestures; but, broadly speaking, such a letter is beyond the skill

of the expert if unaided by accidental betrayal. If, as sometimes

happens, the writer is ingenious enough to adopt an alphabet formed

completely of straight lines and angles--an easy task--he may boast of

having produced a detection-proof writing; that is, if characters formed

with the aid of a rule can be called writing, for it defies detection,

because there are none of the signs essential for comparison, and is

less easy of identification than an incomplete skeleton. In the absence

of external clues, an expert would refuse to do more than offer a very

guarded opinion, and it would be wiser to decline to offer any comment


Another trick that has been resorted to by some persons is writing with

the hand constricted by a tight-fitting glove. This produces a very

effective disguise; but if the student will practise with the same

impediment, he will discover many useful rules for guiding him on the

road to penetrating this entanglement.

It should be remembered that the less control a writer has over his pen,

the more likely is he unintentionally to revert to those forms to which

he is habituated, for, left by itself, the hand steers the more

familiar course. Disguise, alteration and variation on customary forms

are the result of premeditation. When the mind is occupied more with the

subject than the formation of characters, the latter naturally assume

that shape to which the force of custom has bent them.