The new exhibit at the National Archives Museum collects notable signatures, from the X of Harriet Tubman to the flamboyant swirl of John Hancock, the Massachusetts representative whose name became a synonym for signature. But what does an analysis of historical handwriting tell us?
We asked Washington-based graphologist and court-qualified forensic document examiner Barbara East to examine a few examples of handwriting from the exhibit "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures" without telling her who the writers were (although a couple of signatures made it obvious). What personality traits were reflected in the writing of these famous people?
John Wilkes Booth
Item: A calling card left at Vice President Andrew Johnson's hotel, hours before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Was he checking on the location of Johnson's room for his co-conspirator George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill the vice president that night but did not, or was he in cahoots with the V.P.? Historians still argue over its significance.
Analysis: Ms. East determined that because of the double stems, or star in the "T" bar on words such as "with" and his own signature, "once his mind was made up, don't ask twice. He was stubborn." He was also a "very hands-on person," as shown by the flat top of the letter "r." And, owing to the lower loops in the letters, she determined that "when given a task, he had the ability to stay the course until completion."
Item: A letter to former President Herbert Hoover expressing gratitude for their meeting in January 1956, when she found him "wiser and kinder than I could have ever imagined."
Analysis: The then-senator's wife "was a gentle soul and complete optimist," Ms. East says, evident in the large upward "T" bars that show optimism. The light pressure of the writing shows her gentleness; the extremely large upper loops in her writing showed "her creative mind was constantly filled with big ideas." Her strong level of self-esteem, shown by the large personal pronoun "I," "protected her from glaring eyes and vicious comments."
Item: Application to the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, in 1942. Beginning as a typist, she eventually traveled the world on assignments, meeting fellow OSS employee and future husband Paul Child while on assignment to Ceylon in 1945.
Analysis: Through Child's handwriting, Ms. East found her "direct and to the point with no hidden agenda ... the semi-printed large script tells us this. She makes no bones about speaking her mind." Strong dots on the "i" that are close to the stem give her "a fine eye for detail," Ms. East says. But the "t" bar crossed to the left of the stem in the word "advertising" indicates that "when she was overwhelmed, she had a tendency to procrastinate."