Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Shakespeare Forgeries

William Henry Ireland

The account of William Henry Ireland unfolds step by step, but occurs over only a few short weeks. It is a tale of an inconsequential young man trying very hard to please his father, and, in the process, destroying his fathers reputation.

Cottage in Stratford-on Avon
Cottage in Stratford-on Avon

Irelands story begins with a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon one early spring day. The year was 1795. John Jordan, the local Stratford historian on all matters Shakespearean, was guiding a middle-aged man and his son through the city. The older man wore a wig, as was the fashion of the late 18th Century. The young man, 19 years old, wore his hair long, in the style of the Romantic poets. Slim and aesthetic, and clearly dominated by his father, he was a shy, unprepossessing young fellow --- a youth easy to ignore. They were Samuel Ireland, collector and antiquarian, and his son, William Henry Ireland.

The three had visited the poets birthplace and the site where his great house, New Place, had once stood. The magnificent dwelling, purchased by Shakespeare with the earnings from his career as Englands leading dramatist, had been torn down some 35 years before. All that remained were remnants of a garden and parts of a low, stone wall. Later, they stopped at the shop of a Mr. Sharp, who sold artifacts, among which were various knick-knacks carved out of Mulberry wood. The wood came from a tree that had once grown in the garden of New Place, and was said to have been planted by Shakespeare himself. Samuel Ireland bought a cup, and handled it with the reverence it deserved. It was as if he had purchased the Holy Grail itself.

The final destination of the tour was the small farm cottage of long-time Stratford residents, Mr. and Mrs. Williams. John Jordan told the father and his son that they would find Mr. Williams interesting because he had acquired many of the artifacts from one of the owners of New Place some 40 years before.

Just last week, Mr. Williams said, I got rid of a great quantity of old papers. They were in the attic, and I wanted the space to raise some young partridges. So, I burned the papers, right here in this fireplace, didnt I, Mistress Williams?

That you did, Master Williams, his wife said.

And a great many of them had Shakespeares name on them, didnt they, Mistress?

That they did, Master Williams.

Samuel Ireland slumped to a chair. Good God, man, if I had only been here a week ago! This is disastrous!

Well, couldnt be helped, said Mr. Williams. Needed the space, dont you know.

Could you show me the garret? Samuel Ireland asked.

If you like. Samuel Ireland and his son, William Henry Ireland, followed the farmer up a ladder. There, where a great box of Shakespeares papers supposedly had been stored, were several dozen young partridges scurrying and pecking.

The crestfallen Samuel Ireland and his son left Stratford. I would give half of my precious library for a single example of the great Bards writing, Samuel told his son. What a tragedy has occurred!

After their guests had left, Mr. and Mrs. Williams and John Jordan had a good laugh at the expense of their visitors. Never ceases to amaze me, John, how these lovers of Shakespeare swallow whole the burnt papers story.

A few weeks later, young William Henry brought his father a very special document. It was a receipt, written by William Shakespeare and signed by him, for the repayment of a loan. Samuel Ireland was ecstatic. The paper on which the receipt had been written was very old, and the ink was brown and faded, as one would expect of a document 200 years old.

Where on Earth did you obtain this, my lad? Samuel asked.

I chanced to meet a young gentleman who told me that he had a cache of documents from the Elizabethan era, and he invited me to peruse them, the son said.

And who is this young gentleman, the father asked. What is his name?

Ah, Father, that I cannot tell you. He wished to remain anonymous.

It was almost beyond belief. But, to the old man who worshipped William Shakespeare, and wished so to possess something of the immortal Bard of Avon, not completely beyond belief. And how came it that he gave you this precious document?

He has taken a liking to me, William Henry said. He bade me accept it as a gift. And Father, I saw other papers in his trunk. A cursory inspection tells me that there are more papers with the name of Shakespeare upon them.

By all means, you must examine them. I must see them. Can you describe them?

The son could not, at least at this time. He would return to the young gentlemans home in a day or two.

In the meantime, Samuel Ireland had to make certain that his precious document was genuine. He enlisted the help of several fellow antiquarians, who confirmed that it was indeed a very old piece of paper, and that the writing certainly resembled the few known examples of Shakespeares signatures.

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