To the popular imagination, documents convey an inbuilt credibility. Their ‘primary’ status derived from creation ‘inside’ the action gives them authenticity and reliability. External features such as the handwriting, signatures and the markings of the bureaucracy machine at work all vouch for their trustworthiness.
Not surprisingly, this standing as a reliable witness automatically accorded to records has attracted the forger. Criteria and techniques for analysing documents were codified by Dom Jean Mabillon in his De Re Diplomatica (1681) and established the classic internal and external characteristics of a document that confirm it is what it purports to be. This technique known as diplomatics, subsequently supported by advances in analysing handwriting, paper and ink have been needed to this day. Already this year we have seen a forged document used by Senator Heffernan to support allegations against Justice Michael Kirby. The issue of questionable passports and identity papers has also been a factor in many recent stories about welfare fraud and terrorism.
Diaries too have tempted the forger. One of the 20th century’s most contentious and politically charged instances involved Sir Roger Casement, who was executed for treason in 1916 for attempting to recruit aid in Germany for the cause of Irish independence. According to his supporters, diaries detailing his promiscuous homosexual activities were fabricated and selectively leaked to undermine a growing campaign to stay his execution. The majority of expert opinion now supports the diaries’ authenticity.1
Internationally, the 20th century’s most notorious forger was a West German memorabilia dealer Konrad Kujau. In 1983 he briefly duped Der Stern and historians (most famously, Hugh Trevor-Roper) by producing 62 diaries ostensibly written by Adolph Hitler between 1932 and 1945. In Australia, doubt still surrounds the diary of Susan Kemp, the student at the centre of a sexual misconduct case involving Professor Sydney Orr at the University of Tasmania in the 1950s.2
There have been times, too, when the historian (such as Ronald Reagan’s biographer Edmund Morris) brazenly invents diary sources, and the hoaxer openly produces a spurious diary — or diary story!
Selling Hitler by Robert Harris (Faber and Faber, 1986).
Caleb Carr, ‘James the Ripper?: a document that claims to provide the solution to the greatest unsolved crime spree of all time’, a skeptical review of The Diary of Jack the Ripper edited by Shirley Harrison from The New York Times Book Review, 12 December 1993, p. 12.
Glenn R. Owen, ‘Diary exposes vital evidence in Kelly trial’, The Age, 1 April 2000, p. 2. Item 33 Two issues of The Observer (June 1958) referring to the Orr case, that for 14 June opened at A. K. Stout’s article ‘The Orr Trials and Miss Kemp’s Diary’.
My secrete log boke..., by Christopher Columbus purporting to be written by Columbus, (Duesseldorf, Felix Bagal, 1890). A spurious work created by the painter, draughtsman and caricaturist Karl Maria Seyppel (1847–1913), in antiquated English and made with paper and binding attempting to suggest an appearance damaged by seawater.
- See ‘Doubts dispelled over Casement diaries, 86 years on’, in The Age 14 March 2002; Colm Tóibín, ‘A whale of a time’, in London Review of Books, 2 October 1997, pp. 24-27.
- See W. H. C. Eddy, Orr (Jacaranda Publishers Pty Ltd, 1961), esp chapter 24; A.K.Stout, ‘The Orr trials and Miss Kemp’s diary’, in The Observer 14 June 1958, pp. 259–261; Cassandra Pybus, Gross Moral Turpitude: the Orr case reconsidered, William Heinemann Australia, 1993, pp. 118–119; and Peter McPhee, ‘Pansy’: a life of Roy Douglas Wright (Melbourne University Press, 1999), p. 121.