Forged Signatures

The most difficult phase of the art of the handwriting expert consists

in the detection of forgery in signatures. It will be obvious to the

student who has followed the instructions and illustrations already

given that this difficulty is brought about by two principal causes:

first, by the paucity of material for comparison; secondly, because of

the very important fact that a forgery must, by its nature, be a good

lose copy of an original. This means that the unconscious tricks

and irregularities that often abound in a long letter, written in a more

or less disguised hand, are almost entirely absent from a forged

signature. It follows, therefore, that the student must have some other

clues and rules to guide him, for he cannot rely upon the chance of a

slip or accidental trick occurring in a signature that contains at most

perhaps a dozen letters.

The first step in the examination of a suspected signature is to master

thoroughly the various characteristics of the genuine signature. These

must be studied in every possible relation, and from as many specimens

as can be obtained. The magnifying glass must be in constant use and the

eye alert to detect the angle at which the pen is habitually held, the

class of pen used, and the degree of pressure and speed employed. These

last-named points can only be discovered as the result of practice and

observation, and though at first sight it may appear impossible to form

a correct estimate of the pace at which a pen has travelled, the student

will, if observant, soon learn to detect the difference between a

swiftly formed stroke and one written with slowness and deliberation. By

making a number of each kind of stroke and carefully examining them

through a glass, the student will learn in an hour more than can be

taught by means of verbal description. The study of the genuine

signatures must be continued until every stroke and its peculiarities

are as familiar as the features of a well-known face, for until one is

thoroughly impregnated with the original it will be useless to proceed

with the examination of the suspects.

At first sight the student will probably perceive very little, if any,

difference between the original and the suspect. It would be a very

clumsy forgery if he could. Gradually the points of dissimilarity will

become clear to him, and with each fresh examination they grow plainer,

until he is surprised that they did not sooner strike him; they are so

obvious that the eye cannot avoid them; they stand out as plainly as the

hidden figure, after it has been detected, in the well-known picture

puzzles. There are few faculties capable of such rapid and accurate

development as that of observation. Thousands of persons go through life

unconscious of the existence of certain common things until the occasion

arises for noticing them, or accident forces them upon the attention;

then they marvel that the thing should have escaped observation. This is

a truism, no doubt, but the force of every platitude does not always

present itself to every one. The comparison of handwritings is so

essentially a matter of cultivating the powers of observation, that even

if turned to no more practical account than that of a hobby its value as

a mental exercise is great.

There are two principal methods by which a signature may be forged:

first, by carefully copying the original as one would copy a drawing;

secondly, by tracing it.

The first process is referred to as copied. The forger will, most

probably, have practised the signature before affixing it to the cheque

or other document, thereby attaining a certain degree of fluency. But

however well executed, close examination with the aid of the magnifying

glass will reveal those signs of hesitancy and irregularity that one may

reasonably expect to find in a copy.

There is no part of a person's handwriting so fluent and free as his

signature. Even the most illiterate persons show more freedom and

continuity of outline in their signature than in the body of their

writing. This is explicable on the ground of usage. A writer may feel a

degree of momentary uncertainty in forming a word that he does not

write frequently, but his signature he is more sure about. He strikes it

off without hesitancy, and in the majority of cases appends some

meaningless flourish, which may be described as a superfluous stroke or

strokes added for the purpose of ornamentation, for adding

distinctiveness, or, in some cases, and particularly with business men,

with the idea that the flourishes help to secure the signature from

forgery. Such writers will probably be surprised to learn that there is

no form of signature so easy to forge as that involved and complicated

by a maze of superfluous lines and meaningless flourishes. The most

difficult signature for the forger is the clear, plain,

copybook-modelled autograph. A little thought and examination will make

the reason for this clear.

Let a signature be enveloped in a web of curves and flourishes, making

it look like a complicated script monogram. The lines are so numerous

that the eye cannot take them all in at a glance, and, if copied, any

slight irregularity or departure from the original is more likely to

pass undetected amid the confusing network of interlaced lines. If, on

the other hand, the signature be simple and free from the bewildering

effects of flourishes, the entire autograph lies revealed, a clear and

regular outline, and the slightest variation from the accustomed figure

stands out naked and plain. Most of the successful forgeries will be

found to be on signatures of the complicated order. Their apparent

impregnability has tempted the facile penman to essay the task of

harmless imitation; his success has surprised and flattered him, and the

easy possibilities of forgery opened up. More than one forger has

admitted that his initiatory lessons were prompted by an innocent

challenge to imitate a particularly complicated "forgery-proof"


It must be remembered that the eye of the casual observer takes in a

word as a whole rather than in detail. This explains why an author can

rarely be trusted to correct his own proofs. He knows what the word

should be, and in reading his work in print he notices only the general

expected effect of a word. It needs the trained eye of the proof-reader

to detect the small _c_ that has taken the place of the _e_, the

battered _l_ that is masquerading as an _i_. So long as the general

outline of the word is not distorted the wrong letters are often passed;

and it is much the same with a signature with which one is fairly

familiar. The trained examiner of handwriting, like the proof-reader,

knows what to look for, and discovers irregularities that would escape

the notice of the untrained eye.

The first part of a genuine signature that should be examined is the

flourish, which includes all fancy strokes appended to it, and any

superfluous addition to the body of the letters. A close scrutiny

through the glass will show that the lines forming the tail-flourish are

generally clear, firm and sharp in outline, being formed, not only

without hesitation, but with a dash and decided sweep that are strongly

at variance with the broken, saw-edged, unsteady line of the copy. It

will also generally be found to follow an almost fixed rule in the

matter of its proportionate conformation: that is, supposing the writer

finishes up with a horizontal line under his signature, it will be seen,

on averaging a dozen or so of them, that the distance of the line from

the feet of the letters is proportionately uniform. If the line be begun

with a spur or curved inward hook, that feature will be repeated. The

end of the flourish or final stroke, at the point where the pen leaves

the paper, should be very carefully examined. One writer finishes with

an almost imperceptible dot, as if the pen had been stabbed into the

paper; another finishes with a curve, either upward or downward; a third

with a hook turned upward, either a curve or an angle; while a fourth

continues the line till it becomes finer and sharper to vanishing point.

Some writers are fond of concluding with a more or less bold and

expansive underline running horizontally with the signature. A close

examination will show a variation in the degrees of thickness of such a

line, which should be carefully noted and looked for in other genuine


In this connection it will be found extremely useful and instructive to

study strokes, either horizontal or vertical, with a view to discovering

whether they were struck from right to left, top to bottom, or _vice

versâ_. The glass will render it easy to detect beginning from end after

a few failures, which, by the way, should not be allowed to discourage,

for every minute devoted to the study of handwriting is so much gain in

experience, and represents so much more learned, which will never be


The flourishes that occur on and about the signature proper must be

treated as exaggerated loops, and their shoulders, arcs, hooks and toes

carefully measured and noted. For this purpose an average genuine

signature should be selected and gauged, which is done in this way:

Place over it a sheet of transfer paper. With the scale-rule and a fine

pencil draw horizontal lines that will touch the tops and bottoms of the

bodies of the letters, lines that touch the tops and bottoms of the

tailed and topped letters, and vertical lines that follow the shanks of

every topped or tailed letter, including the capitals. The gauge, when

completed, will represent a framework fitting the signature, and its use

is twofold. It helps the eye to detect the variations in the general

contour of the signature, and, when placed over another, brings out the

points of difference. Due allowance must be made for proportion. It is

obvious that the distance of letters will be greater in a signature

written larger than another, but the proportionate distances will be

preserved. The difference in the size of a letter is not very important,

except that it offers more scope for examination. For example, a looped

_l_ may be very small or half an inch long; but, if made by the same

writer, the proportionate width at top, bottom and middle will be

preserved, and compare with the same measurements in the smaller letter.

Signatures of the same writer do not often vary much in size, though

they may be thicker or finer according to the character of the pen used;

but observation will show that the difference in a handwriting caused by

the use of different pens is much more imaginary than real.

The traced signature is produced by placing the paper over the genuine

autograph, holding it to the light, generally on a sheet of glass, and

tracing it with a fine point. Such forgeries are often more easily

detected than the copied signature, for the reason that signs of the

tracing process can generally be found by careful examination. The fine,

hard point used to trace the autograph leaves a smooth hollow, which can

be seen through the glass on examining the back of the cheque or

document. If the paper be held in a line with the eye in a strong light,

the ridge will be more clearly perceived. The difference between a mark

made by a hard point and a pen can be tested by experiment. The hard

point must of necessity be pressed with a degree of force to make the

desired impression on the paper, and the result is a smooth hollow. But

if a pen be pressed hard, it produces two parallel lines, and, instead

of a hollow, a ridge is formed between the parallels. Of course, it will

be so slight as to be hardly perceptible, except through a strong glass,

but it will be there nevertheless, and knowing what to look for, the

expert will generally have no difficulty in satisfying himself whether

the forgery has been traced or copied, a very valuable piece of evidence

when once settled, for it is within the bounds of probability that the

genuine signature from which the tracing was made may be discovered. It

is possible, and has often occurred, that the writer of the original may

have some recollection of having written to the suspected person, or in

many ways a clue may be suggested. There is a well-known case of a

forgery being brought home to the perpetrator through the accuracy of

the tracing. It is a fact easily proved, that no man can write a word

twice, so exactly, that if the two are overlaid they fit. If two such

signatures be produced, it is safe to assume that one has been traced or

otherwise mechanically produced. In the case mentioned a signature on a

cheque was pronounced a forgery by the person supposed to have signed

it. In examining specimens of the genuine autograph, the experts came

upon one which, when placed upon that on the cheque, proved a perfect

replica, down to the most minute detail, showing beyond question that it

had been used to trace the forgery from. It was further proved that the

original had been in the possession of the supposed forger, and the jury

were asked to decide whether it was probable that a man could reproduce

his signature in exact facsimile after a lapse of time, and without the

original before him. As the chances against such a contingency are many

millions to one--a fact the student can verify--the jury decided against

the forger.

At the risk of appearing tautological to a tiresome degree it is

necessary to accentuate the fact that the comparison of handwriting,

and more particularly of signatures, is essentially dependent on

cultivating the faculty of observation. This art cannot be taught; it

can only be acquired by practice and experience, like swimming or

riding. The teacher can at most indicate the method of study and some of

the leading principles of conducting an investigation. Most men are not

naturally observant, and the habit can be best fostered by having an

object; but when once a person has been taught what to look for he

almost instinctively notices details that previously never struck him.

This is specially true of the study of handwriting.

The best method of practice that can be adopted by the student is to

begin by making a careful study of his own signature and writing. He

will be surprised at the number of facts hitherto unsuspected that will

be revealed to him. The value of using his own handwriting as a subject

of examination lies in this, that the student can satisfy himself how

and why certain strokes are made. This he can only guess at in the

writing of others.

The preliminary exercise should consist in studying the effect produced

by the different methods of holding the pen. The signature supplies

excellent material for this class of practice. Begin by holding the pen

with the top end pointed well towards the left shoulder, in the absurd

and unnatural position taught by the old school of writing masters.

Repeat the signature with the pen held a trifle less acutely angular,

and go on till six or eight signatures have been written at a decreasing

angle--until the top of the penholder points well to the right,

producing what is known as a backhand. The effect of these angles must

be carefully noted, and in a short time it will be found possible to

arrive at a very accurate opinion as to how the writer of a particular

signature habitually holds his pen--an important and valuable piece of

knowledge. The practice should be extended to long sentences, and a

frequent repetition of all the letters, capital and small, the

magnifying glass being always used to examine the effect of the various

and varying strokes.

In examining a signature for comparing it with a suspected forgery it

should be copied very frequently, as the clues and suggestions the

experiments will produce are of much greater service than will at first

appear, and of more practical value than pages of theory, as the how and

why will be revealed for much that would be obscure without this

assistance. As experience grows, it will not be necessary to adopt this

copying process so often, for the eye soon becomes alert at detecting

slight shades of difference in strokes, and a glance will convey more

than could be explained in many pages.