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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Counterfeiters and Forgers, Beware. Your Handwriting is a Dead Give-Away

The manuscript  of Laura Towne's diary came to me through the Carolingiana Library at the University of South Carolina. The first page has barely legible notes. As far as I can make them out, they read:

“Ellen Murray ^ made this manuscript” has a correction above it at the caret, which reads “wrote the first page of. . . "  It is a passenger list from Miss Towne’s voyage on the Oriental.

At the next break, it reads:

 “After page I, the entire manuscript is in the handwriting of Miss Towne, who kept it originally in two small composition books.”

The notes themselves are signed by a woman who was a distinguished educator, a trustee at the Penn School, and the author of a well-received early account of the founding of the Penn School. I had no reason to doubt her conclusions, until . . . 

Until . . . . I received in the mail a photocopy of a letter written by and signed by Ellen Murray, Laura Towne's life-long partner. After little more than a glance, all my conclusions about the diary shattered.   I'm not a handwriting expert, but I have had a  great deal of training in reading 12th-century manuscripts, and many of the techniques are the same. To identify a particular scribe, paleographers look for repeated examples of unusual letter or letter combinations. They also consider spacing, slant, and letter size.

Based on that kind of evidence, I am reasonably sure that Ellen Murray could not have written both the letter signed by her and the first page of my xeroxed diary. The writing of the letter slants at about a thirty-degree angle to the right. The writing on the diary page is predominantly perpendicular, with the occasional slight slant to the left. The letter has very even spacing with straight lines; the diary items are listed irregularly. A capital N in the letter has points at the top; in the diary an N has distinctly rounded tops. The descending line of a final y or g in the letter loops around and returns to the base line. In the diary those letters have a descending line that ends far below the base.

And what about the diary itself? Ah, there the letter styles, the spacing, and the direction of the slant in the diary handwriting match those of the letter almost exactly. The top bar of a capital T has the same detached downward curve in both examples--and this form is not the standard taught in the 19th-century Spencerian penmanship guides. Most noticeably the formations of the name Ellen -- a signature on the letter and a frequently-occurring name in the diary--are identical.

Does that prove that Ellen Murray made the copy of the diary? No, not definitively, but it makes it probable. Is it logical that she would have done so? Yes, of course. In fact, it is more likely than the scenario that has Miss Towne making her own copy just a few weeks before her death. Ellen might well have desired a copy as a memorial to her dear friend, but she would not have wanted to claim the original as her own property. 

The most crucial questions are these. Does it matter? Did the identity of the copier influence what materials found their way into the copy?  And does this new conclusion change any of the facts of the story? We'll look at that next time.

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