Forgery or Genuine Document?

By Mitchell, Angus | History Today, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Forgery or Genuine Document?

Mitchell, Angus, History Today

Angus Mitchell shows that new scientific methods are sometimes unable to settle old historical controversies.

THE PRACTICE OF FORGERY has a long tradition in the realms of both law and history. Forgery is a way by which reputations can be made or destroyed, insoluble cases solved, truth manipulated or the historical record controlled. There is often a prankish element to it, especially with literary forgery. Document examination has necessarily become an important part of the science of history, yet debates about the authenticity of documents are often long drawn out controversies. Recent advances in how documents can be forensically examined highlight the need for a more informed and uniform approach by historians to problems of authenticating disputed source material.

Recent rulings about forgery cases have helped terminate a number of thorny controversies. In 1993 a Russian court finally ruled that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged by Tsar Nicholas II's secret police, the Okhrana. The decision was made by a three-member panel of academic `wise-men'. After extensive inquiries, they concluded that the book, which suggested a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to overthrow Christian civilisation, was a reworking of an original text containing no such claims. An equally sinister scandal, with both anti-Semitic and homophobic undercurrents, involved Alfred Dreyfus, the army captain banished to Devil's island after a highly publicised trial in 1894. His conviction was based largely on incriminating documents found in a wastepaper basket. In 1995 the French army finally admitted that Dreyfus was innocent.

Literary hoaxes date back to biblical pseudepigrapha, Later imaginings include the travel writings of Sir John Mandeville, poems of Thomas Chatterton and James Macpherson's translations of Gaelic poems bogusly attributed to `Ossian'. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper's scholarly expose of the memoirs of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the scholar of Chinese who claimed to have had intimate relations with the last Empress Dowager of China, gave him authority when it came to making a professional, if somewhat hasty, judgement on the faked Hitler Diaries. More recent was the heated controversy surrounding the travels of a thirteenth-century Italian Jew, Jacobo of Ancona, describing his purported journey to China in 1271, four years before Marco Polo's historic account. Forgery controversies abound. Forgery is as old as writing itself; some would call it an art.

In the last decade two controversies have raged over the authenticity of private `diaries'. One, featured in the May 2000 edition of History Today, concerns the legitimacy of what pertains to be the macabre scribblings of a Liverpool cotton-merchant, James Maybrick, confessing to his identity as the serial killer Jack the Ripper. In 1889 Maybrick died under suspicious circumstances. His wife Florence was put on trial and convicted for his murder. The Maybrick Diary serves the dual purpose of finally solving the riddle of the identity of Jack the Ripper, while also reconfirming Florence Maybrick's innocence and her trial as a tragic miscarriage of justice.

The other case, re-opened as a consequence of the Open Government Initiative, regards the activities described in the so-called Black Diaries allegedly penned by the former British consular officer turned Irish revolutionary, Roger Casement. One (mainly Irish) tradition of thought maintains they were carefully concocted forgeries. Extracts were circulated at the time of Casement's trial to undermine an influential lobby in Britain and the US demanding clemency. Subsequently they were used gradually to subvert his reliability as a witness to crimes against humanity. Casement carried out celebrated human rights campaigns in the Congo Free State and Amazon rainforest (see History Today, December 1999). Then in 1913 he became involved in Irish militant nationalism, spearheading the first recruitment campaign for Irish Volunteers and organising, with Erskine Childers and others, the running of guns into Ireland in July 1914. …

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