Emily Isakson is a junior at Mount Holyoke College and was a Readers’ Services page this past summer. As an ancient studies major, with a focus in art history and archaeology, Emily has always been interested in what has shaped the society we know today. Her time at AAS only furthered her curiosity of the world.
Would you believe that an ancient studies major would end up at the American Antiquarian Society? Coming here, I knew that the experience would help me to have a more complete picture of the way archives function and to better understand the different ways people explore history. A few weeks in, I still found myself learning new things every day!
My interest in forgery stems from a college course that touched upon forgeries in early Christian texts. AAS has only furthered my interest in frauds as I began to look for forged items in the AAS collection. I quickly discovered that fraudulence is not an unheard of phenomenon throughout history. First in my search, and with the help of Assistant Curator of Manuscripts Ashley Cataldo, I was directed to look into the curious, and unbelievable, case of Mark Hofmann (1954–). His story is one that could fit into the plot of a dime novel or fictional tale.
Mark Hofmann was a book collector and missionary turned forger and murderer in the mid-1980s. Several of Hofmann’s earlier forgeries purported to be documents of historical importance to the Mormon Church. In 1985, Hoffman showed a New York dealer a small broadside called The Oath of a Freeman. It had been long reported that a printing of the Oath was done in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638/39. This would likely be the first thing printed in America north of Mexico, though no surviving copy was known to exist.
The broadside was offered to the Library of Congress for $1.5 million but ultimately the offer was declined because no conclusive evidence of the document’s genuineness could be found. The Oath was then offered to the American Antiquarian Society, who offered $250,000 with a number of stipulations requiring the dealers to try to establish the broadside’s authenticity at their own expense and to supply information about the owner of the Oath and its provenance. At this point negotiations ended.
Now that the sale had fallen through, Hoffman, heavily in debt, was desperate to free himself. In an effort to mislead authorities, he planted bombs which killed two people. He was severely injured when a third bomb accidentally exploded in his car. Subsequent investigations uncovered the forgeries and led to Hofmann’s conviction. He is now well known as a murderer and forger, yet his faked items have found a market of their own, some selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What I became most interested in after reading about The Oath of a Freeman was the idea that some forgeries could yet have found their way into the AAS collection. With further exploration, I learned that the collection already contained forgeries, frauds, and even counterfeited materials ranging from vouchers, money, and checks to pirated papers, forged signatures, and even portraits. Still, there’s a question of whether or not AAS knew these items were frauds when they were acquired. (Discussions of these materials can be found in the AAS blog series “Fraud Week.”)
Stemming from these physical frauds, I began to look into collections at the American Antiquarian Society that dealt with forgers. My favorite was the Newcomb Family Papers, which range from 1824 to 1872. One of the Newcomb brothers, Francis Dana Newcomb, was a businessman of sorts. Arrested on several counts of forgery and embezzlement, Newcomb fled to Cuba in the late 1840s to avoid imprisonment. Within the Newcomb Family Papers collection are account books, legal documents, receipts, and letters detailing Newcomb’s illegal affairs and his time in prison.
Within his letters, Newcomb writes about how his finances steadily decreased when his brother, Henry Knox Newcomb, moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Francis constantly complains to his brother about his decreasing funds, saying, “I find my office without money — and our affairs — in this city and throughout the state, are in a much worse condition than when you left.” His level of anxiety over his income is very evident in his exchanges with Henry. As a result, he forges checks and embezzles money to increase his finances.
The source documents are interesting because, in reading them, I was given insight into the lengths people will go to defend their reputation. In response to the accusations made against him, Francis says, “with a packed jury, I have been tried and found ‘guilty,’” yet he remains incredulous and heads for Havana, Cuba, to escape his debt and his accusers. But once in Cuba, Francis again finds himself in hot water, bankrupt and in debt. In addition to correspondence and legal documents related to Francis Newcomb’s fraudulent business transactions, the AAS collection of Newcomb Family Papers contains notes from family lawyers and promissory notes exchanged between Francis and Henry Newcomb. Henry tried to bail his brother out of debt on several occasions, but to no avail. Francis refused to repay any debt to his brother!
Beyond these two examples, interesting still are all of the other materials in the AAS collection related to forgery and counterfeiting, such as counterfeit currency, forged letters and other fakes, and books on counterfeiting and hoaxes. But how does one accurately decipher whether or not something is a forgery? Nowadays, there are many ways to figure out what’s a fraud and what is genuine—namely advanced scientific methods such as ink and paper testing and handwriting analysis. Conversely, however, technological advances have allowed forgers and counterfeiters to create even more realistic duplicates.
Forgeries have a long history, which is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult to tell what is truly real. But to all those historians and collectors out there, don’t worry—fakes can still turn out to be important pieces of history nonetheless. Here at AAS, our frauds have a special place in the collections. After all, they may have shaped the way that history, and the world, both was and is perceived.
For Further Reading:
James Gilreath. The Judgment of Experts: Essays and Documents about the Investigation of the Forging of the Oath of a Freeman. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1991.
Robert Lindsay. A Gathering of Saints: A True Story of Money, Murder and Deceit. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Robin Myers and Michael Harris. Fakes and Frauds: Varieties of Deception in Print & Manuscript. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1989.