Forged Literary Autographs
The collection of autographs, letters, and documents of literary and
historical interest has for many years been a prominent feature in the
collecting world, but at no time was the quest more keen or conducted on
more systematic lines than to-day. The records of the leading sale rooms
often supply matter for surprise, the prices asked and obtained for rare
and choice specimens being such as to excite both wonder and amazement,
sometimes tempered with scepticism.
It is, therefore, not surprising that this profitable and growing market
should have attracted the fraudulent, for the prizes when won are
generally of a substantial character, and amply repay the misapplied
effort and ingenuity demanded.
The success which has attended too many of these frauds may be largely
accounted for by the fact that in many cases the enthusiasm of the
collector has outrun his caution.
Many a man famous for his astuteness in the pursuit of his ordinary
business has allowed himself to fall an easy victim to the forger, thus
exemplifying the familiar adage that we are easily persuaded to believe
what we want to believe.
The recorded stories of some of the frauds perpetrated upon ardent and
presumably judicious collectors read like the tales told so often of the
triumph of the confidence trickster, and one marvels how a person of
ordinary power of observation, to say nothing of experience, could fall
a victim to a fraud requiring little perception to detect. The
explanation doubtless lies in the direction indicated--the ardour of the
pursuit, the pride and joy of possessing something that is absolutely
The leading case--to use an expressive legal term--is that known as the
Vrain-Lucas fraud, the principal victim of which was Mons. Chasles,
probably the greatest of modern French geometricians, and one of the few
foreign savants entitled to append the distinguishing mark of a F.R.S.
Lucas was a half-educated frequenter, and nominal reading student of the
great Parisian library, and for some years had dealt in autographs in a
small way, the specimens he offered being undoubtedly genuine. Inspired
by the collecting ardour and the apparent blind faith placed in him by
M. Chasles, Lucas embarked upon a series of deceptions so impudent, that
it is easy to sympathise with the defence put forward by his advocate at
the trial, namely, that the fraud was so transparent that it could only
be regarded as a freak.
In the period between the years 1861 and 1869, Lucas sold to his dupe
the enormous number of 27,000 documents, every one a glaring fraud. They
comprised letters purporting to have been written by such improbable
authors as Abelard, Alcibiades, Alexander the Great to Aristotle,
Cicero, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Sappho, Anacreon, Pliny, Plutarch, St.
Jerome, Diocletian, Juvenal, Socrates, Pompey, and--most stupendous joke
of all--Lazarus after his resurrection.
It is hard to believe, and but for the irrefutable records of the Court,
few would credit the fact that every one of these letters was in the
French language! And the dupe a highly educated mathematician of
In the face of such incredible gullibility one is disposed to regard the
sentence of two years' imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs as
extravagantly severe, even despite the fact that Lucas received in all
over 140,000 francs from M. Chasles.
The Chatterton and Ireland forgeries are familiar to all educated
persons. These, however, hardly come under the head of the class of
fraud with which the ordinary forger is associated. In each of these
cases the motive of the deception was not so much to make money as a
literary reputation. In both cases presumably competent judges were
deceived. But the standard by which they gauged the genuineness of the
productions was not caligraphic, but literary. In neither instance was
there occasion or opportunity for the handwriting expert to exercise his
skill, for the sufficient reason that there existed no material with
which the writings could be compared. What the literary expert had to do
was to examine and compare the style of the compositions--a test in
which the idiosyncrasies and predilections of the judge played a leading
Probably the greatest, and for a short time the most successful
autograph fraud perpetrated in Great Britain was that known as the case
of the Rillbank MSS., the detection and exposure of which were mainly
attributable to one of the authors of this work (Capt. W. W. Caddell).
Just before, and up till 1891, there was in Edinburgh a young man named
Alexander Howland Smith, who claimed to be the son of a reputable
Scottish law official, and a descendant of Sir Walter Scott.
On the strength of his presumed connection with the great novelist, he
had no difficulty in disposing of, to an Edinburgh bookseller, for
prices whose smallness alone should have excited suspicion, letters
purporting to be in the handwriting of Sir Walter Scott. Emboldened by
success, he embarked upon a wholesale manufacture of spurious letters
bearing the signatures of Burns, Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott, Grattan
and Thackeray. His principal victim was an Edinburgh chemist, Mr. James
Mackenzie, who, when the fraud was not only suspected, but proved,
distinguished himself by a stubborn and courageous defence of the
genuineness of the documents.
Smith's _modus operandi_ consisted in purchasing large-sized volumes of
the period of the subjects of his forgeries, and using the blank leaves
for the purpose of fabricating the letters. In May, 1891, a number of
alleged Burns' letters were put up for sale by public auction at
Edinburgh, fetching the surprising paltry price of from twenty to thirty
It was a feature of all Smith's productions that the letters were
extremely brief--a feature common to literary forgeries. The
circumstance which first gave rise to suspicion was that the letters
attributed to Scott, Burke, Burns, General Abercrombie, Grattan and
Thackeray all began and ended with the same words. Those signed by Sir
Walter Scott all began "I have your letter," and ended "I remain," a
form of phraseology the reputed writer never used, but which, according
to Smith, was common to all the distinguished men whose handwriting he
had counterfeited with considerable success.
On the strength of the partial guarantee provided by the sale of some of
these documents at a reputable auction room, Captain Caddell purchased a
parcel of alleged Scott letters without prior inspection. A brief
examination disclosed their fraudulent nature, and Smith was arrested.
The Edinburgh police took the matter up, and the impostor was convicted
in June, 1893, and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment.
Thackeray and Dickens are favourite subjects with most literary forgers,
Washington and Benjamin Franklin running them very close for
favouriteship. American collectors are particularly keen on procuring
specimens of the last two-named, and there is grave reason to believe
that many fall easy victims.
Fortunately the facilities for comparing and testing the genuineness of
the autographs of every distinguished person whose holographs are most
in favour with the forger, are numerous. In addition to the splendid
collection of specimens extant at the British Museum Library, there are
many facsimiles available.
The excellent work on Autograph Collecting by Dr. Henry T. Scott (Upcott
Gill, London) is indispensable to the collector. It contains some
hundreds of specimens, specially selected for the purposes of
comparison, and gives besides many very valuable rules and hints for
detecting the real from the sham.
Dr. Scott, writing of the autographic letters of his distinguished
"Of Sir Walter Scott's autographs it may be observed (1) the paper is
generally letter size, gilt edged, with a soft, firm feeling to the
touch, and an unglazed surface. (2) The date and residence are placed on
the top and right hand, with a good space before the 'My Dear Sir,'
uniform margins on the left side of the paper of a quarter of an inch,
but on the right side no margin at all, the writing being carried close
to the edge. The folding is done with the precision of a man of
business, forming the space for the address into a nice oblong almost in
the centre of the sheet, and the first line of the address is written
nearly in the centre of the space with the remainder below.
"The watermarks found on the paper are one of the following:
Valleyfield, 1809; C. Wilmott, 1815; J. Dickinson and Co., 1813; J.
Dickinson, 1816; J. Dickinson (without date); J. Whatman, 1814; J.
Whatman (without date); Turkey Mill, 1819; Turkey Mill (without date);
G. C. & Co., 1828."
The paper used by Burns for his correspondence was always large in size,
rough in surface, never glossy, and all four edges had the rough edge
that is the peculiarity of a Bank of England note.
It is worthy of remark that in the case of the A. H. Smith Burns
forgeries, suspicion was first excited by a simple but significant
matter. The paper contained several worm holes. These had been carefully
avoided by the writer, he knowing that if his pen touched them the
result would be a spluttering and spreading of the ink.
Now it is safe to assume that these worm holes, being the effect of age,
did not exist at the time the letter--if genuine--was written; as the
worm did its work long afterwards, it must be regarded as a fortunate
circumstance that in perforating the paper it refrained from destroying
the writing, carefully selecting the wider spaces that the poet had,
with commendable foresight, left for the insect's depredations.
The letters of Thackeray are in two styles of handwriting, the earlier
sloping slightly, the latter vertical, round, neat and print-like, the
capital _I_ being invariably a simple vertical stroke. His is the most
neat and uniformly readable hand of all the great literary characters.
It is somewhat unfortunate that he was not anything like so uniform in
his choice of paper. Letters are in existence on an extraordinary
variety of material, from a quarto sheet to a scrap torn from half a
sheet of note paper. On many of these letters is neither address nor
date, but when once the characteristics of the charming handscript have
been mastered, they are never forgotten, and are recognisable amid the
There are extant a number of forged Thackeray's. Their distinguishing
features are that they are invariably very short, as if the forger
feared to provide sufficient matter to supply material for comparison;
most are on single half sheets of note paper, many on quarto sheets of
varying texture and quality, and the characteristic vertical _I_,
Thackeray's trade mark, always occurs. It is shaky and often out of the
perpendicular, as the genuine rarely is. In the forgeries we have seen
and suspect to be the work of A. H. Smith, a very significant sign is a
sudden thickening of the downstrokes of tailed letters like _y_, _f_,
_g_, producing a tiny diamond-shaped excrescence in the middle of the
letter. The glass reveals that ragged-edged stroke which is inseparable
from the writing of the nervous copyist.
It is generally safe to be cautious about very short letters. The forger
well knows how difficult is the task of maintaining an assumed
character. Just as the mimic may succeed in reproducing the tone and
manner of a person with sufficient closeness to deceive even the most
intimate acquaintances of the subject, yet fail to carry the deception
beyond a few words or phrases, so the literary forger invariably breaks
down when he attempts to simulate handwriting over many sentences. So
conscious is he of this great difficulty that he often avoids it by
boldly copying some genuine letter. We have had offered to us
"guaranteed" Thackeray letters which we immediately recognised as such.
In one particularly glaring case the forger had copied the original
letter very fairly so far as the penmanship was concerned, but while the
original was written on a half sheet of note paper, the forgery was on a
different size paper, and the writing across the length of the paper
instead of the breadth. This naturally disarranged the spacing between
the words, which in all Thackeray's writings is a pronouncedly regular
feature, and this variation was in itself sufficient to excite
The popularity of Dickens among collectors grows steadily. Despite the
fact that he was an industrious correspondent, and that a very large
number of his letters appear from time to time in the market, the demand
is ever in excess of the supply. As a consequence he has suffered
perhaps more than any of the literary immortals at the hands of the
forger. Yet it is safe to say that there should be no writer so safe
from fraudulent imitation, for there is a peculiar distinctiveness about
his caligraphic productions that once seen and noted should never be
forgotten. Specimens are easily available. The catalogues of dealers are
constantly presenting them, and most public libraries possess examples,
either in the original holograph or in some form of reproduction.
Probably no writer preserved his style with such little change as
Dickens. His signature in later years varied somewhat from that of his
literary youth, but the body of his handscript retained throughout the
same characteristics. It was always a free, fluent, graceful hand,
legible as that of Thackeray when its leading peculiarities have been
mastered, but less formal and studied than his. It was always remarkably
free from corrections or interlineations. He wrote with the easy freedom
of the stenographer; indeed it is easy to recognise in the delicate
gracefully formed letters the effect of years of training in the most
difficult and exacting form of handscript.
Perhaps the leading peculiarities in the Dickens holograph are these:--
The date of the month is never expressed in figures, but always written
in full; in fact, abbreviation in any form he never countenanced.
The letter _y_, both as a capital and a small letter is a figure 7
except in the affix "ly," when the two letters become an _f_ or long
The letter _t_ is crossed by the firm downward bar, which the character
readers claim as a sign of great resolution.
Letter _g_ is invariable in form.
Capital _E_ consists of a downstroke with a bar in the centre.
The hook of many final letters has a tendency to turn backwards.
New paragraphs are marked by beginning the line about an inch from the
A very marked peculiarity noticeable in many letters is that the
left-hand margin gradually grows wider as the lines approach the bottom
of the page. The narrowing is wondrously regular, a line drawn from the
first letter on the first line to the corresponding position on the last
will touch nearly every other line. This peculiarity appears to have
escaped every forger whose work we have examined.
If the signs relied upon by the readers of character in handwriting are
to be accepted, self-esteem was a pronounced characteristic of the great
novelist. His writing abounds with those subtle symptoms of the
prevalence of that weakness.
His signature is perhaps the best known of any with which the British
public are familiar. It is remarkably uniform, and remained precisely
the same from the time he adopted it after the Pickwick period until his
death. That which he used in youth was less striking, but none the less
After the Pickwick period Dickens adopted the use of blue paper and blue
ink. Letters in black ink, if undated, may safely be attributed to the
His note paper was in later years of the regulation note size. The
address, Gads' Hill Place, Higham by Rochester, Kent, was in embossed
black old English letter. His paper was hand-made, and of good quality.
The envelopes were blue, of the same quality paper, but without crest,
monogram or distinctive mark. Dickens' vanity expressed itself in the
habit of franking envelopes, _i.e._, by writing his name in the
left-hand bottom corner, after the fashion in vogue when Peers and
M.P.'s enjoyed the privilege of free postage.
His letters of the pre-envelope period--before 1842--were on quarto
sheets. These are exceedingly rare.
There is one feature about autographic forgery which may always be
relied upon to assist greatly in the work of detection. As a general
rule there is sufficient matter in a literary forgery to supply the
necessary material for comparison. It must of necessity be a copy, if
not of an existing original, at least of the general style. The process
of imitation must be slow and cautious, and the signs remain in shaky,
broken lines, and a ruggedness entirely absent from the writing of the
real author, which is fluent and free. Even the shakiness of age
noticeable in a few distinguished handwritings is different to the
shakiness of the forger's uncertainty.