I wrote this post for the lovely Angela Buckley and the summer edition of her Victorian Detectives’ Club.
“The evidence of professional witnesses is to be viewed with some distrust, for it is generally with some bias. But within proper limits it is a very valuable assistance in enquiries of this kind. The advantage is that habits of handwriting – as shown in minute points which escape common observation, but are quite observable when pointed out – are detected and disclosed by science, observation and skill.”
In the history of forensics, there is a tendency to remember the introduction of ballistics, of fingerprinting and developments in toxicology and to forget the study of handwriting analysis. Graphology, to give the subject its proper name, is largely defunct in modern criminal investigations and is largely viewed as a sort of pseudo-science but, for the Victorians, it was a fundamental part of the process that received widespread interest and attention. Graphology began its journey in the English courtrooms of the 1840s where it was pioneered by a man called Joseph Netherclift. Born in 1793, Netherclift was the son a Hampshire farmer who had gone to London as a young man to seek his fortune. Whether by design or accident, Netherclift established himself in the business of lithography, a method of printing which involved tracing the original of a document or image onto a prepared surface and using an ink roller to take an impression. It was through this tracing process that Netherclift became intimately acquainted with the “peculiarities of handwriting” and, over time, learned to distinguish one person’s hand from another. With this new skill, Netherclift set up in private practice and began examining the “scurrilous letters” and forged receipts of a few select clients.
As his reputation for accuracy grew, he was called to appear in the case of Jemmy Wood, a banker from Gloucester who had died in 1836 and left behind a staggering fortune of almost a million pounds, close to £40 million in modern currency. Wood died the richest commoner in England and, with so much money at stake, his beneficiaries hotly debated the terms of his will and the validity of the many codicils, prompting the appointment of Joseph Netherclift in 1840 to settle the matter. He confirmed the authenticity of the will and, soon after, became a familiar face in English courtrooms, especially in will disputes and suspected forgeries, where his knowledge of handwriting had unwittingly made him the first of a new breed of expert witnesses.
Netherclift continued to operate as the country’s only expert until the 1860s when another took his place in the courtroom. His rival was, in fact, his own son: Frederick George Netherclift, born in 1818, and an accomplished lithographic printer and graphologist in his own right. Frederick was called to the Central Criminal Court in 1863 to give evidence in the Roupell Forgeries case, one of the most scandalous of the era. William Roupell was the illegitimate son of Richard Palmer Roupell, a wealthy merchant, who had invested heavily in property and land and amassed a considerable fortune. William was not as financially savvy as his father and had squandered his income and fallen into debt as he sought to establish himself in London society. To solve his money troubles, he set about forging documents in order to obtain the lion’s share of his father’s property. He even destroyed his father’s will and composed a new one in which he disinherited his brother, Richard, and made himself the executor. His father died in 1856 and, by 1862, William could no longer pay the mortgages on his numerous properties and fled to Spain. He was prosecuted for fraud on his return to England and sentenced to penal servitude for 14 years. But the case went to court on a further two occasions as William’s brother, Richard, sought to reclaim what he believed was his rightful inheritance. The prosecution called Frederick Netherclift to examine the deeds to the properties in question and he confirmed that they were all forged by William Roupell. In light of his evidence, the jury could not agree on what constituted Richard’s inheritance and he spent the rest of his life trying to recover his father’s fortune, sadly with little success.
Frederick’s involvement in the Roupell Forgeries brought him to national attention and his remit of cases began to widen. In the summer of 1871 he again appeared at the Central Criminal Court but, this time, the charge was murder and the prisoner was a respectable lady from Brighton called Christiana Edmunds, dubbed the Chocolate Cream Poisoner by the national press. Edmunds was accused of dispersing anonymous parcels containing poisoned chocolates and sweets to a number of respectable citizens including Emily Beard, the wife of a doctor with whom she was in love. At her hearing, Netherclift was asked to compare one of her love letters to Dr Beard with the address labels of the poisoned parcels. He then described to the court the process of examination:
(Prosecution): Is it the general characteristics in the handwriting you go upon?
(Frederick Netherclift): Certainly; style is a different thing altogether. Handwriting may be written either upright or sloping; we therefore look for characteristics.
(P): How do you generally proceed?
(F.N): I first of all examine the admitted handwriting and pick out some 12 or 14 of its peculiarities. I then compare that handwriting with the disguised, and if I find it to contain the same characteristics I consider I have good ground for believing them to be the same handwriting.”
After a “careful and minute” examination on these points, Frederick became convinced that Edmunds was the author of the notes and that she had deliberately attempted to change her style of handwriting. During cross-examination, Edmunds’ solicitor, Charles Lamb, asked Frederick to analyse two previously-unseen samples of handwriting taken from a witness in the case. Frederick glanced at the samples and noted they were different but said he should not like to draw any conclusions without having time to examine them. Lamb pressed him and asked if he would stake his reputation that they were not written by the same person. Frederick replied: “I refuse to give an opinion without comparing them with other signatures. If you want an opinion with reference to them you can have it by giving me time and furnishing me with other signatures but I shall expect my fees!”
His comments prompted laughter in the courtroom. This was not the first time that Frederick, or his father, had faced attempts to discredit his analysis but he knew too well how to handle the likes of Charles Lamb. He had faced a similar situation eight years earlier, during his cross-examination in the Roupell Forgery case, prompting him to make the most famous assertion of his career: that he could copy a signature so perfectly that his own father, the great expert, would be “bothered” by it. The prosecutor responded by mocking him: “And between you, I suppose, you could have bothered a good many people?” Frederick’s reply was short but enough to silence the prosecutor: “No doubt.”Back in the Brighton courtroom, one of the magistrates rose to remind the court that the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, had recently paid “one of the highest compliments he possibly could” to Frederick, remarking that “he had never yet found him wrong in his life.” Such praise brought Lamb’s cross-examination to an abrupt end and helped to secure Edmunds’ fate: she was found guilty of murder by the Central Criminal Court in January 1872 and sentenced to death. Her conviction silenced those sceptical of graphology and Frederick Netherclift continued to give evidence in a number of high-profile cases. In 1887 he was specially retained by Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish statesman and nationalist, who was forced to defend his reputation after a letter bearing his signature appeared in The Times. The letter claimed that Parnell supported the murder of two senior British officials by an Irish terrorist group in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1882. Parnell was naturally eager to prove the letter was a forgery and, thanks to Frederick’s expertise, he was exonerated and received £5000 in damages from The Times.This was a career high for Frederick Netherclift and, more importantly, had cemented graphology’s reputation as a credible method in the detection of crime. Frederick died in 1892 but graphology lived on, in courtrooms across England and with a new group of experts at the helm.
Many thanks to Angela for publishing this post!
You can find out more about Angela, her fabulous book: “The Real Sherlock Holmes” and sign up to the club here: http://www.angelabuckleywriter.com/
 Experts in Handwriting’, The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 4, London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1885, pp. 148-162.
 Morning Post, 1 September 1871.
 Morning Post, 21 July 1863.
 Morning Post, 1 September 1871.