The legal forger

I’d never heard of the prolific forger “Antique” Smith before I saw the email notification about the talk on him from the Society of Antiquaries in Scotland. But I like archives, and history, and the fact there was a legal case that arose from it meant it sounded like an interesting outing. So last night I went along to the National Library of Scotland, where this talk was being hosted.

So, what did I learn? Mr Alexander Howland “Antique” Smith had quite a busy time of it between 1887 and 1893, churning out at least 500+ known (at a conservative estimate) forged manuscripts and letters attributed to a wide variety of well known people over all sorts of time periods. However, he seems to have had a particular liking for Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott….or maybe they were just more saleable items!

He was trained as a law clerk, in the firm of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS, and it seems that old legal documents stored in the firm may have been the early source for paper for his initial fakes. Apparently, the skills he would have learned in this role would also have been just what he needed to become a good forger – patience when drafting and copying lengthy documents, and attention to detail when drafting. Although he needed to pay a bit more attention to detail than he did in the end!

He was a very prolific forger, and used the flyleafs of period books bought secondhand as the basic material for his documents. He used various techniques to age them, including dipping them in weak tea, and rubbing dirt into creases to give the appearance of age, especially in areas where they would have been expected to be folded and refolded over the years. However, he was somewhat lacking on real attention to detail, and his forgeries were riddled with problems.

In the case of his forgeries of Scott’s letters, it was noted that his way of folding the letters he made differed from the way Scott would have folded them. Letters were regularly noted as being from specific locations, often some time after the real writer had moved away, e.g. Robert Burns apparently wrote a letter from a home he’d left a year before. One person wrote a letter, despite having been mortally wounded in a famous battle the day before. Cromwell wrote while in another city to the people who were be in charge of Glasgow, telling them to maintain order…but at that time, he was in Glasgow himself. Written materials which would not normally be signed, e.g. memos, had signatures attached, purely because it would make the letter more valuable. The paper he was writing many of his fakes on had a bluish tint, like the paper used for legal documents, rather than normal writing paper. He used modern (in the 1880s) pens and ink, there was no attempt to try and match the writing materials of the appropriate time periods. He would work around wormholes in old paper, giving the impression that the worms must have been considerate animals indeed. And his attempts at actually matching the handwriting, although probably informed by having seen some samples of the real writer’s style, were not hugely successful. Although in the case of Robert Burns, his own handwriting did vary with time…and drink!

Quite a catalogue of ineptitude!

Despite all this, he still managed to sell a lot of forgeries to a lot of people. There were a variety of wrangles prior to him being discovered as the creator of the forgeries. They related to manuscript collectors who had been defrauded, concerns about the honesty of the alleged document experts who had somehow vouched for the authenticity of these shoddy copies, charges brought in the Sheriff Court against Smith of theft/fraud (he was found not guilty), a case raised in the Court of Session in 1891 against a seller of some of the fake documents (the pursuer eventually instructed his law agents to drop the action, so it didn’t progress), and requests to have the disputed documents assessed by staff at the Faculty of Advocates to check their authenticity (an offer which the document expert refused to take up), he was identified as the originator of the flood of fake documents which had suddenly appeared on the collector’s market.

He was brought in front of the Court of Session in June 1893, on 4 charges relating to pretending to various booksellers and pawnbrokers that false documents were genuine. There were 98 examples of his work gathered as evidence against him, and together with the existence of his forgery hut/summerhouse (with its contents of pens, inks and books on copying handwriting) and the testimony of the many witnesses who had bought from him or seen him with a large volume of old documents, unsurprisingly he was found guilty on all charges. The recommendation from the jury was for leniency, so instead of penal servitude, he was sentenced to a year in prison. After he served this, he mostly drops out of history.

The irony is that, despite not being very good forgeries, Antique Smith’s fakes are now collectable items in their own right. To this day, they’re still being uncovered in archive collections around the world, have appeared listed as genuine in auction listings (although identified and removed from sale before the actual auction), and many more may lurk in the collections of notable families who kept quiet at the time of the trial, not wanting to admit that they’d been duped. However, if they were discovered now, the forgeries would be left physically untouched, with careful cataloguing demonstrating their provenance as forgeries. Unlike the examples we were shown from historic collections, which were gleefully marked repeatedly by some long-gone document manager with purple stamps saying “SPURIOUS”!

Outside, there were examples of original letters by Burns and Scott, and Antique Smith’s forgeries of these two author’s hands…I decided against testing my fake spotting skills though!

Your guess is as good as mine

Of course, what I want to do today is start looking in the Session Cases and see if it’s a reported case….

Jury duty – seeing justice in inaction

So, I work in a law firm, I deal with law-type stuff…but it’s all commercial law. I’ve never dealt with criminal law, and have no real clue about how that all works.

So, when I got my third call for jury duty in three years (the first two years they exempted me as my current and previous workplaces mean I know various legal types, and may have opinions that would render me biased, but this time I thought I’d go along anyway and they could dismiss me if they felt I was unlikely to be able to serve ), I turned up to the Sheriff Court like a good girl.

And my, what a long, long, boring day that turned out to be!

The juror citation letter said come in at 10, but call the helpline after 5pm the day before for more information.

The phoneline says come in at 10.30.

I arrived at 10.30, joined the queue of other people clutching letters, while we waited outside the designated court for 10 mins.

We all filed in and sat down, all 60 plus of us, and the Clerk of court gave a 5 min briefing on what would happen next/procedures. My favourite bit was when the Clerk said “does anyone object to taking the oath, and would rather do an affirmation instead?” Well, maybe if they’d explained what either one was, somone might have – I would probably have preferred the affirmation, as I feel no burden of duty to god, as used in the oath, but hey-ho.

We had a roll call, and everyone confirmed they were there, it was like being back in school. Or in the classroom in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…”Beuller…..Bueller…..Bueller?” There was a distinct air of boredom.

Various people, obviously unable to read properly, came up to the Clerk and asked why their names hadn’t been called….erm, that would be because the date on their letters was the previous day, or, in one case, it was dated the week before.

Then we sat, in silence, increasingly bored, for 50 long mins, as Procurator Fiscal, defence solicitor and Clerk chatted and faffed, with occasional visits from another clerk and the officer of the court for variety. Many newspapers were read, phones checked, and books broken out.

Then the defendant was brought in, the charges against them were read out, and the Clerk drew the jurors names from the bowl. (I don’t understand why the defendant gets to see and hear the jurors names – that can be a bit worrying…as I’ll come to later). There was much tension as each one of us prayed our names weren’t going to be pulled out.

After all the jurors were seated, the Sheriff asked if any juror now, after hearing the charges and the names of those involved in the case, and seeing the defendant, felt they would be unable to serve due to any conflict. One juror claimed tinnitus made hearing the discussions difficult – the sheriff dismissed them, which they seemed strangely able to hear clearly enough, and another juror was drawn to replace them.

Then we sat and waited while the charges were read again, and the jury went through to their room, in case anyone else was found to be unable to sit and needed replaced. This trial was scheduled to last 4 days.

The jurors came back in, and as nobody had raised any further issues to the officer of the court while in the jury room, the jury was complete. So, after 1 hour and 40 mins of sitting doing nothing, we were dismissed….to go to the court next door, where a jury was also needed. And also, it appears, where heating was optional. When you’re wearing a 3 piece suit, a wig, and a gown, you may be slightly insulated from the Arctic chill of the room you’re in. Us jurors however, were not.

Again, we sat and waited here for 20 mins as the Procurator Fiscal and solicitors/Clerk faffed about, then names were called for the jury, mine unfortunately being one of them. Of course, by this time the delightful defendants were in the dock: the guy being led up from the cells, the girl coming in from the public gallery seats. Even better, their pals were in the front seats of the public gallery area too…and as our names were called, they made a big point of twisting round in their seats, and staring at us as we made our way to the jury box. Now, apparently at this point they may also have been speaking to us / making comments to us, but none of the jury remember hearing anything – we were all so focussed on getting to the box and sitting down, and doing things right. So, these lovely individuals now know my name, and what I look like? That’s reassuring.

As the jury was being called however the male defendant was slouching about in the dock, stretching back, looking over at the jury and loudly saying “this is ridiculous, you’re all going to find me not guilty anyway” etc to us. The Clerk then quietly (but heard by all of us) told the defence solicitor to “tell your client to shut his face, he’s not doing his case any favours”, and after a quiet word from his solicitor, he managed to keep himself quiet.

Then the Clerk read us the indictment, including one persons 8 bailings in the 7 months prior to what they were jointly accused of. I think at that point, from their disrespectful attitude and behaviour alone, pretty much everyone on the jury already was forming a bad opinion of them.

Then, since time had dragged on, it was time for lunch – we were led to a room where we were fed soup and sandwiches with the other juries, under supervision of our court officers, then led back to our jury room, which we weren’t allowed to leave without an escort. It felt like we were the prisoners.

Lunch was scheduled to be 1-2…and by 2.15 we were getting a bit fidgety with waiting for the court officer to come and get us: we just wanted to get on with it, or be allowed to go. Then the court officer appeared, and asked if we’d been spoken to by the boys in the public gallery. None of us could remember that, but we had all seen them glaring at us when we were selected, and we weren’t happy about that. Apparently the Clerk and PF had heard them speak, but didn’t know what they’d said, but from their other behaviour it was likely to be threatening or potentially an attempt at intimidating the jury. So, discussions were going on about that…then we were told one of the defendants was going to plead guilty. Then they weren’t. Then they would, but only to certain stuff, so they were amending the charges. Meanwhile, we were discussing if it would be overly cruel to hide under the table and in the toilets from Billy the court officer, as this was his first day on the job…

Eventually, at 3.15, we all filed through to the court…where we had nothing to do but sit and listen (and shiver – most of us forgot to bring our coats out of the jury room) for 45 mins as the PF read out what the Crown believed was the version of events (more mutterings from defendant or public gallery – first one, then the second of their pals were removed by the police), then the defence solicitors tried to make their clients out to be semi-angels (despite 1 currently residing in prison for the next 3.5 years for…breaking and entering offences, and having 2 prior violence with knives convictions, and the other being respectfully dressed for court in a tracksuit, huge hoop earrings, MP3 player earbuds dangling, and slumping onto her elbows in the dock when they had to stand for sentencing, with the Reliance officer elbowing her and telling her to stand up straight), then we were told we were done by the sheriff, and dismissed.

A long, pointless day, from the point of view of a juror. I can only imagine what it must be like to have to actually work in the system, and have to deal with this sort of faffing about every single day.

I could be in online trouble

If giving a fake name and date of birth to MySpace is a criminal act…

Admittedly, I’ve not actually done anything criminal online, but I regularly make up a false date of birth / location / name when signing up to various websites.
I refuse to give the real information when I beleive that all it’ll be used for is to track what I’m doing on the site, and target marketing at me based on that information. Same reason that I don’t have loyalty cards – if they want market research, they can put some work into it, rather than stalking my shopping habits!

We’re constantly being told to be more aware of how important and sensitive our personal information is, and not give it away without careful thought and consideration of the basis for the request for it.
But by giving false information when we don’t believe the request for out personal details are justified, we’re breaching the terms and conditions of various sites.
How can you win?