While an individual's signature is not consistent from day to day or document to document, certain patterns and style characteristics can often be used to help identify the signature of a particular individual and distinguish it from the signatures of others of the same name. When other evidence is in short supply, handwriting analysis can be a powerful and often overlooked tool for genealogists.
According to the Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners, handwriting identification is based on the principle that individual features can be used to distinguish one person's writing from another.
Just as no two people are exactly alike, the handwritings of no two people are exactly alike in their combination of characteristics. There are, of course, natural variations within the handwriting of each individual. These variations must be closely and carefully studied by the examiner, so that he can distinguish between what is a "variation" and what is a "difference."
To determine authorship of a particular signature or handwriting sample, a forensic document examiner will consider certain characteristics, including:
- Spacing of words and letters
- Ratio of relative height, width, and size of letters
- Pen lifts and separations
- Connecting strokes
- Beginning and ending strokes.
- Unusual letter formation.
- Baseline characteristics
- Flourishes and embellishments
- The length, size, and location of diacritics (dotting of i's and crossing of t's).
Document Examiner vs. Graphologist
Handwriting analysis is employed in two different fields. The first is often referred to as "questioned document examination," a branch of the forensic sciences. Document examiners, according to the Association of Forensic Document Examiners, "answer questions relating to the reliability and authenticity of a document which may involve signatures, handwriting in general, or hand printing." This is a different branch of science from graphologists, or graphoanalysts, who examine handwriting characteristics in order to assess the character and personality of an individual. Graphoanalyst is a registered trademark of the International Graphoanalysis Society.
Resources for Further Study:
Hill, Ronald A. "Identification through Signatures: Using Complex Direct Evidence to Sort Colwills of Cornwall." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 87 (September 1999): 185-198.
Rockett, Kay. "Signatures, Penmanship, and Name Variations Identifying Reverend Mr. Jacob Ware." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 86 (September 1998): 218-222.
Lambert, Irene. "Graphoanalysis and James "Major Jim" Ball: A Genealogical Test of a Psychological Tool." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 86 (September 1998): 205-217.
Gundy, Lloyd W. "Etienne Cabet: A Genealogical Test of Graphoanalysis." National Genealogical Society Quarterly 78 (March 1990): 39-49.
Sassi, Paula. "Analysis of an Ancestor's Handwriting." Genealogy Gems Podcast, 16 April 2008. Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9B0jsvm4gg : 2013.
Harrison, Diana, Ted M. Burkes, and Danielle P. Seiger. "Handwriting Examination: Meeting the Challenges of Science and the Law." Forensic Science Communications 11 (October 2009). Online reprint. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/review/2009_10_review02.htm/ : 2013.
Held, Dorothy-Anne E. Held. "Handwriting, Typewriting, Shoeprints, and Tire Treads: FBI Laboratory's Questioned Documents Unit." Forensic Science Communications 3 (April 2001). Online reprint. Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications/fsc/april2001/held.htm : 2013.
Law Enforcement Standards Office. Measurement Science and Standards in Forensic Handwriting Analysis Conference Presentation Slides, Gaithersburg, Maryland, June 2013. PDF download. National Institute of Standards and Technology. http://www.nist.gov/oles/handwriting-analysis-conference-presentation-slides.cfm : 2013.
American Society for Testing and Materials International. E2290-07a Standard Guide for Examination of Handwritten Items. West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: ASTM International, 2007.