Dissenting from the Media Consensus
by Tim O'Sullivan
What first sparked a real interest, on my part, in Roger Casement and the questions surrounding the Black Diaries was a BBC radio programme broadcast in 1993 where they were inspected in situ in the British National Archives at Kew by an English handwriting specialist by the name of Dr. David Baxendale. As I remember the presenter was one Roisín McCauley. It was a relatively short broadcast and there was no time at the end for discussion representing various shades of opinion.
This was at the time just before the Diaries were to be made open to the public under the UK's Freedom of Information Act. Much of the programme was taken up giving background information to the controversy. Towards the end an element of dramatic tension was created by having Baxendale and McCauley apparently open a safe or strong-room and then peruse the once-forbidden material. After a few passing remarks and references to how the writing conformed to what he had seen of Casement's unchallenged handwriting, Dr. Baxendale pronounced himself satisfied there had been no forgery.
No further details surfaced about precisely the methods he had used to come to his conclusions. No written report emerged. The matter was reported approvingly on other media outlets and then it dropped from view.
I was now ready to eagerly read other snippets of information on the Black Diaries when I encountered them to fill out the picture. I came across newspaper letters from the now-deceased Eoin O Maille of the Roger Casement Foundation stating that an analysis of vocabulary and word frequency comparing the Diaries with attested Casement writings suggested they had been written by someone else. Interestingly, in this field, O Maille was self-taught. What was impressive was that he was arguing in terms of a methodology, data he had collected, and observations based on that data. He was prepared to indicate how he had reached his conclusions, rather than dispensing a pronouncement from on high, without giving detailed reasons.
In March 2002 two lavishly-produced television documentaries were broadcast which revisited the controversy, one from the BBC and another from RTE. They contained biographical material on Casement, interviews with a variety of supposed experts, and finished with coverage of an examination based on handwriting analysis which was meant to indicate finally if forgery had taken place or not. This had been carried out by Dr. Audrey Giles, a self-employed forensic document examiner who often did work for the London Metropolitan Police. It had been organised by Dr. W.J. McCormack, then Professor of Literary History at Goldsmith's College, London. The outcome of the examination was kept secret till near the end of the programmes, which made for gripping viewing. We were shown close-ups of handwriting enlarged on computer screens which, one imagines, was meant to suggest some technical sophistication was involved.
Yet when the conclusion was announced that the Diaries were genuine lingering questions remained hanging in the air. Why had O Maille not been interviewed and allowed give his reaction? Why had no forensic scientist been interviewed for an independent opinion of the examination? Angus Mitchell, British-born author of The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, still maintained his conviction they had been forged.
The media in Britain and Ireland went on to tout the line that the case was now solved and could be closed. Talking with various people taught me that there was a real widespread belief at this time that this was the end of the matter.
The reality, however, was very different from this media-manufactured impression.
James J. Horan teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. He is a former head of the New York City Police Department crime laboratory. He took part in the Royal Irish Academy Symposium, Roger Casement in Irish and World History, in May 2000 and presented a paper titled, How Forensic Science Would Approach the Casement Diaries? His opinion was that a number of approaches involving a variety of technologies needed to be employed. Handwriting analysis would be just one of them.
At a Colloquium at Goldsmith's College, London, on Casement soon after the television programmes in 2002, Horan gave his evaluation of what has come to be called the Giles Report. A shortened version of that paper appeared in the newsletter of the British Association of Irish Studies for July 2002. It is this shortened version which appears below.
How Did The Giles Report Investigate Casement's Handwriting?
by James J. Horan
Dr. Audrey Giles has an excellent reputation in the forensic document community. She is a member of some of the major professional societies and has published a number of papers in the leading journals. She has presented a number of papers at international meetings some of which I had the opportunity of to attend. Although I have never personally worked with Dr. Giles, I would consider her a competent examiner with years of experience. What I am going to say now is based solely on the Giles report on Casement' Black Diaries. I've never seen the Diaries and I have never examined them.
For a report to be accepted in courts in the United States it must present not only the findings but also the data which backs up those findings. Under the Federal rules of evidence, a report must include the results of the tests and all the notes and charts required to demonstrate the findings based on all the documents examined. Dr. Giles' report as it stands would not be accepted in the courts in America because the report is lacking in backup material. Where are the photographs of the evidence examined, the charts, and supporting detail necessary for anybody to review the report?
When you examine known writing, especially in a case like this, it is very crucial, that you determine the validity of the known writing. In the 1980s we had the problem of Hitler's Diary, which was accepted as genuine by one of the leading document examiners in the world. Michel and Baier, two of the German document examiners who were involved in exposing the Hitler forgery in an article in the Journal of Forensic Science Society, pointed out some principles that should be used in examining documents. "The reliable information on the point of origin of the material examined has to be obtained and inter-homogeneity of the documents cannot be over stressed". Basically, you have to compare all of the known writings together to make sure how it breaks down into different groups. Can they be accounted for, or can they not be accounted for? The known writing of Casement should be crucial. In effect, as much time should be spent on examining the known writing as should be spent on the questioned writing.
Another problem which Michel and Baier pointed out is the need for the examiner to be familiar with the writing system. In Dr. Giles' report she suggests that Roger Casement used a modified Civil Service system. She is referring to the English Civil Service system in Osborn's book. Osborn was one of the leading document examiners around the turn of the century and his book is still used as the leading text in the field. This is the system that Dr. Giles suggests Casement was using or was in common use at the time. She points out a number of features in Roger Casement's writing, which she calls distinctive features, but when she describes them in the report she fails to give any examples. Using her descriptions I went through a letter that was given to me in the Home Office material, which was distributed at the Royal Irish Academy Casement conference a few years ago. There are examples of writings taken from the British Consul in Norway. He sent a letter to the Home Office and basically he has the same general features that Dr. Giles records in her report. I am not saying he wrote it but the features are similar. If I were examining writings from the turn of the century, I would have to collect a number of examples and analyse them to establish what was common and what was uncommon. Casement's writing of the "d" was very pronounced in the way it swept up and back, but I noticed exactly the same feature not only in the Consul's writing but also in a number of other writings in other papers made available by the Home Office. So that was a common feature. A document examiner, then, has to decide after very thorough examination on exactly what emphasis should be put on various features.
Dr Giles did not do any chemical analysis of the ink or pencil. With modern analytical techniques, such as Ramon spectroscopy and X-ray Fluorescence it may be possible to do non-destructive testing in the future to answer the questions about them.
The handwriting comparisons in the Giles Report are inadequately documented. As there were no charts in the report, I have no way of evaluating her handwriting comparisons. When I presented my paper "How Forensic Science Would Approach the Casement Diaries" at the Royal Irish Academy Casement Conference I mentioned the possible use of 'Write On'. 'Write On' is a computer program developed in Canada by Pikaso Software. The way it works for a comparison is that each page of the document, or documents to be examined is scanned into a computer and then the known and questioned documents are typed into the computer. This process enables you to select either words, letters, letter combinations or positions of the letters for display and study on the computer screen. Of course, this time-consuming method of scanning and typing involves much work, but I think that in the controversial case of the Black Diaries, such a detailed analysis of the documents should have been employed. Such an approach would have produced comparison charts tracking every place Casement wrote 'the' in the questioned and known writing. This type of comprehensive analysis can stand up better to all vigorous challenges. Basically the forensic document examiner should work along the lines of presenting a case to a jury. In a handwriting comparison case, the jury should be taken through the evidence step-by-step; and charts are the best way of showing why this is the handwriting of x, why this is the handwriting of y and all the charts should reach the standard that when a jury looks at the charts they feel confident in reaching a well informed judgement.
As editor of the Journal of Forensic Sciences and the Journal of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, I would NOT recommend publication of the Giles Report because the report does not show HOW its conclusion was reached.
Because of the controversial nature of the case Dr. Giles should have been requested to prepare a detailed report that could be presented to a jury. To the question, 'Is the writing Roger Casement's ?' on the basis of the Giles Report as it stands; my answer would have to be I cannot tell. In the fullness of time, there will emerge further illumination of the ink and pencil question. Very gradually we will draw closer towards convincing answers to most, if indeed not all, of the questions posed by the enigma of Casement's diaries.
If you wish to subscribe to the Irish
Political Review, Labour & Trade
Union Review, Church & State or Problems
Of Capitalism & Socialism please go to our secure sales area.