Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Genius Bomber: The Mormon Forgery Murders

Documents Examination

Special Agent George Throckmorton
Special Agent George Throckmorton

Throckmorton saw that the letters were different from one another in a number of ways.  He knew that a man writing three letters on the same day from the Carthage, Illinois, jail in 1844 would not have used different paper, a different writing instrument and different ink for each one, and would not have had reason to change the style of his handwriting.  Yet thats what he saw in these documents.  It was likely that each letter had been authenticated individually by different dealers, without comparisons made, because another expert would have spotted these elementary flaws.  He had also discovered that these dealers who had purchased the letters had not contemplated forgery because they did not see any reason for someone to forge a religious document.

On the other hand, Throckmorton examined letters and documents purportedly by three different authors and saw similarities in the handwriting.   To some extent, he realized that similarities could be attributable to a similar system of writing being taught in a specific culture, but there are ways to determine the uniqueness of an individuals style.  He felt sure these letters were forgeries, which could mean that many of Hofmanns other sales were forgeries as well.  Had Hofmann done this himself or just passed on things he had discovered?  Getting the answer to that question would involve a much more complicated operation.

At about the same time, a journalist found the actual McLellin collection in Texas, which contained nothing controversial, and discovered that its owners had never heard of Mark Hofmann. So at the least, he was caught in another lie, as well as fraud.

A murderer and a dealer in fraudulent documents.   How did they go together?

Meeting with documents expert Bill Flynn from Arizona, Throckmorton worked with him to figure out what Hofmann may have done.   They had to get down to the basics.

Most people learn to write by imitation.   Theyre taught a certain style, but eventually they develop idiosyncrasies that set their writing apart and stamp it as individual.  Repetition crystallizes a specific style that over the years will show only slight variation.  The same odd characteristicsways of spelling a word, the particular slant or spacingare expected to be evident across samples by the same person, even when someone may be trying to conceal his or her identity.

Handwriting experts study the variations in writing samples to try to determine if two (or more) different documents were written by the same person and thereby identify the known author of one sample as the author of a similar one. 

A known specimen written by an identified person is called the "standard" or "exemplar," and it should be as similar as possible to the questioned writing, specifically containing similar words or letter combinations.   The primary factors for handwriting analysis are divided into four categories: form (shape and proportion), line quality, arrangement of letters and spaces, and content.

Documents examiners also analyze the material on which something is written, and the medium used, such as a typewriter or ink.   In forgeries, whenever there are attempts to alter a document, the paper's surface generally shows the erasure, sandpapering, or razoring that has been applied.  Any alteration made with a different color of ink will be detected by alternate or infrared lighting techniques.

Paper is generally classified according to the materials in its composition, specifically additives, watermarks and the surface treatments used, such as heat or resins.   Specialists can determine the date a particular type of paper was introduced.

Modern ink can be one of four basic types: Iron salts in a suspension of gallic acid, carbon particles suspended in gum Arabic, synthetic dyes with a range of polymers and acids, and synthetic dyes or pigments in a range of solvents and additives.

Questioned ink is tested with microspectrophotometry to determine the absorption spectrum or with thin-layer chromatography to reveal the exact elemental composition, and is then compared to the database of more than 3,000 ink profiles at the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Great Forgers and Famous Fakes
Great Forgers and Famous Fakes

There was plenty of work to do now, but among Hofmanns effects taken during a search, Throckmorton and Flynn found a copy of a book by Charles Hamilton called Great Forgers and Famous Fakes.