Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Literary Forensics

Document Analysis

In 1991 Michael Barrett, a scrap-dealer from Liverpool, England, claimed to have in his possession a 63-page diary, written on the pages of a photo album, that appeared to be the work of the infamous unidentified killer, Jack the Ripper. "Jack" had terrorized London from August to November in 1888 when he killed five prostitutes. The last one, Mary Kelly, was thoroughly carved up and disemboweled, but then for no apparent reason the killings stopped. Barrett's "book" seemed finally to solve this mystery.

James Maybrick

The diary was said to be that of cotton broker, James Maybrick, who had died from poisoning in 1889. Barrett said that he'd gotten the book from a friend, but since that person had died, he could not trace its origins. The piece created quite a flurry of interest, but eventually Barrett confessed to having forged the document. Then he confused things further by recanting his confession.

A London-based psychiatrist who analyzed the diary thought that the diary's form and content were consistent with the mindset of a serial killer, specifically one suffering from a dissociative disorder. In the diary, the man writes of his rage over his wife's infidelities. He couldn't take this anger out on women in his own neighborhood, so he attacked them when he went to London. The name "Jack" came from the first letter of his first name and the last two letters of his last name. The diary is signed by "Jack the Ripper" on May 3, 1889. (Maybrick died on May 11 after a month-long illness.)

The handwriting was compared to known samples from Maybrick, but opinions were divided. A handwriting analyst who had been a forensic document examiner for the Chicago police believed that there was no match between Maybrick's writing and that found in the diary. However, some experts contended that the writing on Maybrick's will was actually forged, which invalidated it as a sample for comparison, and his signature on a license was considered too brief to be a fair sample. There were no other examples of his handwriting that could serve the purpose, so no conclusions were drawn from handwriting analysis.

The paper and ink were also compared to paper and ink from that time period, and once again the specialists had contradictory opinions. While the paper contained no modern additives and the ink was consistent with that used at the turn of the century, it was also true as Barrett himself claimed in his initial confession that antique paper and ink can be bought.

The forensic factors that suggest the diary is fake include the fact that

  • most of the writing had been done during a few sittings
  • the writing bears signs of flourishes added later, as if to make it look more authentic
  • some of the descriptions of the crimes are consistent with the newspaper accounts rather than with what was actually known by investigators
  • Maybrick showed no evidence in his daily life of having a disorganized, psychotic personality.

Some people believe the Ripper diary to be a fake, while others claim that it is authentic. The evidence fails to support any definitive conclusion, but this is one of the key cases that has made the field of Literary Forensics, or document examination, so fascinating.

The work of a document examiner generally involves probing different aspects of a "questioned document" that will reveal its originating source. Examiners need to be proficient in microscopy, photography, chromatography, and methods of document alteration.

The usual types of documents submitted to analysis include poison pen letters, ransom notes, altered records, forgeries, and disputed legal documents.

Among the approaches to the analysis of questioned or forged documents are:

  1. Handwriting/typing analysis (including indented writings on a pad of paper)
  2. Attributional evidence through linguistic analysis
  3. "Thoughtprints"  decoding subconscious messages
  4. Materials analysis

Handwriting analysis is the most common procedure for questioned documents in a court case, so let's look at how it's done.


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