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LIMA: Forgeries

There is a long, if not exactly illustrious, history of forging significant literary and historical documents. The past that people chose to fake tells us a great deal about what different generations have desired from their cultural heritage. Individual motives for forgery have often been quite complex - it is only in the nineteenth century that money emerges as the major motive. Forgers' careers can also offer an abundance of entertaining anecdotes. All this is unfortunately beyond the scope of this website.

A highly readable and reasonably detailed history is Joseph Rosenblum, Practice to Deceive: The Amazing Stories of Literary Forgery's Most Notorious Practitioners (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000). Rosenblum's book is rather less lurid than the title suggests, and it outlines the "professional" careers of George Psalmanazar, James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton, William-Henry Ireland, John Payne Collier, George Gordon Byron, Vrain-Denis Lucas, Thomas James Wise, and Mark Hofmann.

The websites associated with exhibitions on forgery at the University of Delaware and the Folger Shakespeare Library also provide details and illustrations of the most notable literary forgeries.

A crucial skill of the forger is to produce what the intended victim wants so badly that he or she will be unwilling to question its authenticity. Two examples of this from the 1980s are Hofmann's forgeries of early Mormon documents, and the 'Hitler Diaries' hoax. There are a number of books on Hofmann, most recently Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer (2003), and the classic account of the Hitler Diaries is Robert Harris, Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries (1986) (reviewed here).

The quality of execution is only one factor in forgery, and sometimes success depends almost entirely on the credulity and/or greed of victims. Few cases show this so spectacularly as Michel Chasles's happy purchase of letters supposedly from Julius Caesar and Cleopatra (along with others by Sappho, Saint Matthew, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and others) .... in French. Should this have awakened suspicions, the collection Lucas sold to Chasles also included a letter from Saint Jerome in which he discussed a letter from Jesus in which the Son of God himself states that 'Celtic' was the original language created after the Flood!

Detecting Forgeries

Whilst there are some spectacular examples of literary forgeries, the identification of forgeries is primarily a problem for professional handwriting analysts working in a forensic context. The careful attention to visual characteristics that are necessary to imitate another person's handwriting means that writing a forged document is a very different physical process from writing normally. The basis of identifying a forgery is therefore a detailed understanding of the physical process of writing, because if you can recognise features and patterns of variation that derive naturally you can then be in a position to recognise the unnatural characteristics of a forgery. For example a common tell-tale feature of forgeries is shakiness of the pen-stroke. This comes about because the forger must move the pen slowly in order to copy the natural movements of the writing being imitated. In Forensic Handwriting identification: Fundamental Concepts and Principles (p. 130), Ron Morris states five principles underlying handwriting identification that assist in the identification of forgeries:

  1. No two people write exactly alike.
  2. No one person writes, exactly, the same way twice.
  3. The significance of any feature, as evidence of identity or non-identity, and the problem of comparison, becomes one of considering a feature's rarity, the relative speed and naturalness with which it is written, and its agreement or disagreement with the feature(s) to which it can be compared.
  4. A writer is not able to imitate all the features of another person's handwriting or hand printing while simultaneously writing at the same relative speed and skill level as the writer he is seeking to imitate. This is especially true the greater the relative speed the model writer uses. Further, in simulating another's writing, the simulator will try to imitate those features that are most striking to his eye. He frequently either disregards those features that are less conspicuous to him or, if noted, fails to imitate them successfully.
  5. For those writings where the writer successfully disguises his normal handwriting habits or where he imitates - traces - the writing habits of another writer while leaving no trace of his own, it is virtually impossible to identify the imitator.

A more detailed discussion of identifying forged handwriting is Tom Davis, 'Forged Handwriting', in Fakes and Frauds: Varieties of Deception in Print and Manuscript, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris (Winchester, 1989), pp. 125-37.

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