Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"The History Detectives"

Last June I reported on a firefighter named Joseph Skanks. Just after a 24-hour shift, he stopped by an estate sale and bought a pile of old photos, books, and letters for $8. When he sorted through the stack, he found a letter addressed to Henry Clay Whitney, signed A. Lincoln. Was it the real deal?

On Monday night, the PBS series “History Detectives” tried to solve the mystery. I like the series because I think it does a good job of explaining what historians do.

To solve this mystery, the history detectives contacted John Lupton, an Associate Director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield. I know John and he is first-rate. His team is traveling the country scanning Lincoln documents in preparation for a monumental reference work, featuring both incoming and outgoing Lincoln correspondence.

As you can imagine, Lincoln forgeries are quite common. Lupton has learned how to spot a fraud. I found his comments to be very interesting:

We see so many forgeries that sometimes you just develop a feeling when something is not quite right. Lincoln’s handwriting is extremely fluid. It is clear he was a very slow and deliberate writer. Lincoln generally wrote with a quill pen, either actual feather pen or later a steel nib pen. Lincoln mostly crossed his t’s backwards. Not 100 percent of the time, but certainly the majority of the time, maybe 75%.

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