Forgery“Without lies humanity would perish of despair and boredom” – Anatole France

Whether it’s for personal gain and glory, revenge, or just plain silliness, pen pushers have been faking the words and intentions of others, for hundreds of years.  People being what they are (gullible) it’s hard to say how many historical items or stories are actual frauds and forgeries.


-For a brief period in 1795, William Henry Ireland, aged around 18 years, enjoyed fame and probably some fortune, for his “discovery” of an amazing array of Shakespearean documents, including letters, promissory notes, receipts, deeds, and even a lost tragedy. Its hard to say whether he was driven by an attempt to become the new bard, or by his book publisher / antiquarian father, who oft reminded William that he would give away his entire collection for one example of Shakespeare’s writings.

– In 1992, Certified Document Examiner, Emily Will, was called upon to verify a copy of the Declaration of Independence. It turned out not to be a deliberate forgery, but one of the commemorative sets printed in 1876. How did they know? The process of paper making used in this copy, wasn’t available in the 1700s.

-A different kind of document was tampered with in 1928, when a lost heirs case brought forth a family Bible in which were inscribed the names of children reportedly born in 1887 and 1889, and recorded at those times. But the copyright for the Bible was 1890. No labour is that long!

-In the 1920’s a will was called into question, because the portion with its date had been torn off. It was written on a dated form, which meant that it had to have been printed either January 8, 1928 or October 8, 1924. The alleged date of the will was September 20, 1924. Unfortunately, where the piece was torn off, a comma could still be seen, that was not present in that position on the form printed in January. Proving that the will was written after the October printing. Haste made waste, and then some!

-In April 1981, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, won the Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s Story”, the life of an 8 year old heroin addict. Two days later she recanted, saying the story was a composite of all child drug addicts. A resignation was her next submission to the editor.


– In the mid 1980s, Mark Hofmann led the Mormon church down the garden path, and it wasn’t to Eden. Over a period of time he presented a number of faked letters, to and by church founder, Joseph Smith. Many of these contained hitherto undiscovered explanations for gaps in church history and doctrine. Deeply in debt, and in fear of discovery, Hofmann killed one of his church contacts for inspecting the documents, and another woman as well. He is now serving a life sentence.

Curiously enough, a forgotten piece of his forgery, totally unrelated to the Mormons turned up in 1997, when Emily Dickinson’s hometown library purchased a previously unknown treatise on death and the meaning of life. Sotheby’s experts complimented the forgery for it’s expertise, having used the exact paper the poet did, watermark and all, and the same writing instruments. The fraud came to light, when a Dickinson collector reported being offered the poem by Mark Hofmann ten years before.

– In 1972, author Clifford Irving learned just how bad, too much of a good thing can be.  Irving presented publisher McGraw-Hill with reams of documents purporting to be written by Howard Hughes, and granting Irving permission to write a biography. Howard even wrote the publishers himself. The lid blew off his stunt, when the real Howard Hughes blew his stack.  The Postal Inspection Service determined the letters were faked. But it’s easier to say whose writing something isn’t, than whose it is. Irving’s prodigious output of material was what earned him some jail time. There was enough written material, for his own writing characteristics to show through. But don’t cry for Clifford. He cleaned up with his book about the caper: “Hoax”.


– Jack the Ripper was never found. But in 1992, a book appeared, claiming to contain the texts and details from a 63 page diary, attributed to one James Maybrick, a cotton merchant who died in 1889 from arsenic poisoning. His wife was tried and convicted of his murder, despite the fact that he was an arsenic eater to start with. The “diary” was written in a Victorian scrapbook showing traces of glue and picture outlines, with over 40 pages cut out. It was subjected to test after test, the only definitive ones proving that it was genuine period ink and paper. Strikes against it’s authenticity included: the fact that it would have been hard for a modern forger to get an untouched album to write in, hence the used one. The handwriting did not match that on Maybrick’s will, nor did it match closely, any of the samples of the Ripper’s letters (which did not even match amongst themselves.). Maybrick lived some 250 miles from Whitechapel.

On the side for the diary being genuine: the ink and paper, the fact that he listed only five victims, not the 7 reported later.  The words “Kelly” and “no heart no heart”. Mary Kelly’s inquest report was not made public until 1987. Maybrick as a young man lived in Whitechapel, and the murders were done on weekends.

None of the evidence was conclusive. It could have been a post-1987 forgery, or a contemporary forgery, or…the real thing.

-A magazine in Germany got a “Stern” lecture from the owners, after paying out 10 million marks for Hitler’s diaries in 1983.  As it turned out, the diaries were forged rather carelessly, by one Konrad Kujau, who made a lucrative living cranking out fake paintings and manuscripts by Hitler. Busy with his other sidelines, Konrad really slipped up in forging the documents on books made of post 1950s material, using both “FH” and “AH” as monograms on the fronts,  chemically modern ink that was proved to be recently applied, and inaccurate historical data.


-Polly Baker was a “loose” woman. Charged with fornication, the evidence was irrefutable: unmarried, she had just born her fifth child. The first known printing of the text of her speech in court, was in a London paper in April of 1747. It was an impassioned plea, citing that she had never been a care on the town, that the men who had promised her marriage went scot free, and that if religion were to damn  her, what need had she of fines she couldn’t pay?   Polly Baker went free of the charge and any fine. That is, in the story she did. For the speech had been written by Ben Franklin, presumably in aid of the sadly downtrodden rights of women.

-Readers of the “Enterprise”, Virginia, Nevada’s leading paper in 1862, learned that it wasn’t fear which petrified a man found at Gravelly Ford. It was time. The county had held an inquest into the death of the mysterious man, who was so hardened by 100 years on a mountainside, that even his wooden leg had turned to stone.  And it was the public’s collective leg that was pulled. The story was written by young reporter, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Annoyed at the proliferation of petrified stories, he admitted to writing it for “spite, not fun”. It was his first hoax …so he claimed.