Hetty was just getting herself settled in New York when she received news of Sylvia’s death, news that beckoned her back to New Bedford for the second time in three weeks to bury a close relative. Her grief over Sylvia’s death was tempered on her northbound journey by the knowledge that she was steeling for a fight. At last, Sylvia’s death promised to force the secretive drama of her will to a very public conclusion.
New Bedford was, suddenly, a different place for Hetty, home only to ghosts. Every member of that extended cast of relatives who had taken a hand in raising her was dead. Among the living residents of New Bedford she had hardly a friend whom she felt she could trust. Rumors regarding Sylvia’s will swirled around the town, visions of dollars dancing in one parlor, parsonage, and counting house after another, from Hard Dig to the top of the hill. Anticipation rippled through not just those expecting direct bequests, but a much larger stratum of distant Howland relatives who learned that, upon Hetty’s death, the remainder of the trust would be distributed among them.
Decades later, when Hetty was an elderly woman, a friend of hers named C. W. deLyon Nicholls, described her experience at Sylvia’s funeral, in a 1913 article for Business America magazine:
Her aunt’s establishment she found to be in the custody and under the ironclad rule of a band of avaricious doctors and nurses. One of the former [presumably a reference to Dr. Gordon] transfixing her with a hypnotic stare, exclaimed, “Really, Miss Robinson, I am very sorry to see you looking so miserable. At best, you cannot hold out longer than a year.” … The day of the funeral arrived. Every remote ramification of the family tree able to walk, with or without crutches, put in an appearance. Miss Robinson slipped in so deeply swathed in crepe that she was not recognized. With her head bowed against the piano and almost prostrated with grief, she overheard a couple of these distant relations chuckling to themselves, ‘When Hetty dies we will have a whole greenhouse built onto our house.”
Since the only possible source for this account was Hetty herself, it is impossible to verify this scene. It is difficult to imagine Hetty being able to appear incognito at Sylvia’s funeral. Sylvia’s maids and nurses would later recall not a niece “prostrated with grief” but a hard-eyed, calculating woman eager to get down to business. But the real value of Nicholls’s description is not the relative veracity of the details but the vivid window into Hetty’s mind as she stepped off the train in New Bedford and saw greed in every face—just as they, surely, saw greed in hers.
At the reading of the will following the funeral, Hetty sat stewing in a silent rage as she listened to each provision. The news that she would receive lifetime income on a $1 million trust did not move her. All she could hear was a litany of insults large and small. She was to receive no cash. In essence, she was to be less trusted to handle money than the assortment of widows who received direct cash payments of $10,000 or $20,000. The huge cash payments to Dr. Gordon and his family outlined in the will and the codicil stung Hetty, but the greatest outrage was that the hated Dr. Gordon would serve as one of the trustees for her inheritance. He would be the one making financial decisions for her and reaping thousands of dollars each year in commissions.
A final insult came freighted with irony. The $100,000 that Sylvia had initially left to Hetty’s father would have been hers because of his untimely death. But the codicil had removed the gift to Edward. To whatever degree Hetty knew the specifics of Sylvia’s last will beforehand, this reading confirmed all of her worst fears. In a fever of righteous anger she set about planning ways to stop it dead.
Hetty’s New Bedford lawyer, William Crapo, recognized the strength and care with which Sylvia’s new will was drawn. He was also in the rather delicate position of having served not just Hetty and her father, but Sylvia, for a number of years. Although he would ultimately testify on Hetty’s behalf in the upcoming court case, and serve as one of a battery of seven attorneys, he had little stomach for the battle and was never more than lukewarm in the support of her cause. About the only stalwart ally she had as she entered the fray was a new figure, a wealthy man who had recently moved to New York, Edward Henry Green.
Green, a native of Bellows Falls, Vermont, had met Hetty in February, at her father’s home. Edward Mott Robinson was already ailing when he introduced his thirty-year-old daughter to the forty-four-year-old bachelor, a sometime business associate of his. The son of a prominent merchant in Bellows Falls, Green had left his hometown in 1838, at seventeen, to seek his fortune in Boston. Nine years later, having established himself as a merchant, Green left for the Philippines, where he remained for some twenty years, earning a fortune trading tea, silk, and other goods for the firm of Russell, Sturgis and Company. By the mid-1860s, he returned to the United States, and the New York office of Russell, Sturgis. His decision may have been influenced by a large earthquake that struck Manila in 1863, killing many residents and burying others under the rubble of their homes and businesses. Green had been on a business trip in Hong Kong at the time, but the close call sobered him. “A narrow escape, to be sure,” he relayed in a letter to a friend in Pennsylvania.
There are several stories about how Hetty and Edward first came to be introduced. One suggests that Green had heard about Hetty during a gathering of American businessmen in Japan when someone offered a toast to the “richest American heiress”—Hetty Howland Robinson. Hearing this, Green is supposed to have banged his fist decisively on the table and announced, “I’m going to marry her.” The story is colorful, but probably not true. Hetty was not yet rich, let alone America’s richest heiress, nor was she yet famous enough to have her name bandied about by strangers on the other side of the world. Another story has Green hearing of Hetty at a banquet in New York. The likeliest scenario is that they were formally introduced at Edward Mott Robinson’s home in February of 1865 and within a few weeks were inseparable. By June first, two weeks before the death of Edward Mott Robinson, Edward and Hetty were engaged.
With the exception of their mutual affection for money, Edward and Hetty had little in common. They were an odd pairing, and their differences would intensify in the years to come and make them both frequently miserable. For one thing, Edward was not a Quaker, but an Episcopalian. This did not pose much of a theological barrier—neither was particularly devout. But the Quaker traditions that drove Hetty to save, scrimp, and deny herself luxuries were utterly lost on Edward Green. He was a physically large man, over six feet tall and stout, with a gentle nature and an easy laugh. Throughout his stay in the Far East, he had regularly sent money home to his widowed mother, and bought her a comfortable home in Bellows Falls. He loved fine food and wine, dressed well, and enjoyed the easy camaraderie of clubs. He was a generous tipper and a soft touch. He enjoyed the luxuries, comforts, and prestige that his money could buy. New York, he wrote to a friend, “is rather a pleasant place for a stranger. Lots of Balls, Dinners, Parties going on all the time.” The letter was written in July 1865, and Hetty, although not mentioned, undoubtedly accompanied him to many of those balls, dinners, and parties.
The fact that Hetty and Edward thought they could find happiness together represents a considerable gap in judgment by both. They could hardly have been more different in what they wanted out of life and in the ways they defined happiness. What did they see in each other? Edward undoubtedly admired Hetty’s knowledge of business—rare in a woman. She was pretty, and possessed a sharp wit—another quality Edward admired. And, of course, there was the fortune she stood to inherit—although he had to know that getting his hands on any of her money might be more trouble than it was worth. Edward did not need her money, as he had amassed a fortune of close to a million dollars on his own. More likely, Hetty’s money simply lent her a certain glitter that in Edward’s eyes compensated for her rougher qualities.
For her part, Hetty knew that Edward liked to spend. But his self-made fortune attested to his business abilities, and her father, whose business judgment she valued above all others, liked Green. If he spent his money, what of it, so long as he didn’t try to spend hers. If Hetty had any doubts about Edward, he proved himself to her by accompanying her to New Bedford and serving as her loyal friend at a time when she needed one.
The will Hetty heard following Sylvia’s funeral was airtight. It had been witnessed by respected men and was thorough and exact. If she had any hope of reversing the inevitable, she would have to somehow establish the preeminence of the mutual wills that she and Sylvia had signed in 1860 and 1862. She would have to present some document specifically invalidating any subsequent wills. And she would have to move quickly.
Her campaign began at Sylvia’s house on Eighth Street the evening of the funeral. Hetty summoned Fally Brownell, the aged housekeeper who guarded the keys to Sylvia’s trunk. In the dim light of an oil lamp, Fally, Electa Montague, and Hetty climbed the stairs to Sylvia’s room. Edward waited downstairs. According to Hetty, she asked Fally to open the trunk and retrieve some papers, which Fally did. One, a lemon-colored envelope, contained Hetty’s will. The other, a white envelope, contained a copy of Aunt Sylvias 1862 will. Attached to it, Hetty insisted, was a second page that had been added at Sylvia’s request shortly after she signed the will. This second page contained Sylvia’s explicit request that any subsequent will be automatically invalidated by the probate judge.
Edward corroborated Hetty’s version, although he erred in his testimony by saying the search for the papers happened in the morning, a couple of days after the funeral. Fally and Electa insisted Green wasn’t even in the house, and that it was Hetty, not Fally, who rummaged through the trunk. “Miss Montague and I stood at the door of the closet. She [Hetty] went in and went to the trunk. I did not see what she did. I went downstairs in a very few minutes,” Fally recalled. Electa said she saw Hetty retrieve some papers but had no idea what they were. The distinction was crucial. Hetty needed to establish that someone besides herself had seen this second page actually attached to the will, to counter suspicions that Hetty had fabricated the second page after Sylvia’s death and forged her aunt’s signature.
As she launched her “second page” scheme, Hetty attacked on another front: She set about trying to win support among Sylvia’s beneficiaries. She tried to convince Electa that Sylvia had slighted both of them. “We are not capable of taking care of our money,” she said. “Yours is in trust, and so is mine.” In fact, Electa had received $5,000 in cash outright.
The next day, Hetty tried another approach. “We were at Sylvia Ann’s homestead, and Miss Robinson asked me into the parlor,” Electa recalled. “She talked about the will, said her aunt had not given me as much as she ought to, and said if I would come over on her side she would give me as much as or more.” Electa turned down the offer.
Hetty traveled frequently between New York and New Bedford that summer, with Edward by her side much of the time. One day in July, Pardon Gray, Sylvia’s former driver, saw a horse and buggy roll up to his door, bearing Hetty and the large stranger from New York. “Isn’t it strange that Dr. Gordon hasn’t come to see you since your aunt’s death?” Edward asked Hetty, in a voice loud enough for Pardon to hear.
Hetty said, “Maybe it is conscience keeps him away.”
Then the pair turned their attention directly to Pardon Gray, pointing out that his $10,000 bequest was all in trust.
“Wouldn’t you rather have the money outright?” Hetty asked.
Green added, “You will have to go to Dr. Gordon, hat in hand, and ask him for your dividend. If it is not agreeable to him, he will tell you to call again some other time.”
Hetty later testified that she had, indeed, visited Pardon Gray, but only for advice in buying a horse.
Frustrated with her lack of progress in swaying townspeople to her side, Hetty one month later boarded a train for the short ride from New Bedford to Taunton to see Edmund H. Bennett, judge of the Probate Court for Bristol County and the man who would decide whether to admit the will. Hetty had already written Bennett a letter earlier in the summer, complaining about “improper influences” brought to bear upon Aunt Sylvia, and asking him to investigate the levels of laudanum prescribed to her around the times she signed the will and the codicil. The letter invited the judge to visit her the next time he was in New Bedford. She included her name and address. Bennett ignored the letter, so Hetty decided to pay the judge a surprise visit.
She launched an attack on the cabal of men behind Aunt Sylvia’s new will, focusing particular wrath on Dr. Gordon. Then she said, “I can get somebody to serve as trustee who won’t charge any commissions. You can have the commissions for yourself.”
The judge stared at her for a long moment.
“Do I understand correctly what you just said?” Hetty repeated the offer.
Bennett looked at her coldly. “Young lady, I must decide the case upon the law and the evidence. I do not want to hear any more from you.”
Fortunate that the even-tempered judge hadn’t tossed her in jail for attempted bribery, Hetty left the office to catch the noonday train back to New Bedford. Unbowed, she had one more errand to take care of before boarding the train. When Judge Bennett arrived home for lunch, he found an envelope containing money as a gift for his child. The judge returned the money to Hetty by the next mail. A month later he approved Sylvia’s last will.
Hetty appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court, then withdrew the appeal, deciding instead to sue the trustees, filing in the United States Circuit Court in December of 1865. Hetty’s suit charged that she, as the only direct heir to the Howland fortune, was by law and nature entitled to the estate. She claimed that Dr. Gordon and others manipulated a drugged, enfeebled, and vulnerable woman into crafting a fraudulent will. When in her right mind, Sylvia had always wanted Hetty to have the full inheritance.
In their response, lawyers for the trustees painted Hetty as a bitter, coldhearted schemer. Witnesses called forth by the defense, among them Fally and Electa, described in excruciating detail Hetty’s tantrums and her single-minded persistence. It was an extremely unflattering portrait, delving even into Hetty’s wanting habits of personal hygiene. “She told me many times that she did not want to be left with Miss Robinson,” Electa said of Sylvia. The trustees, by extension, represented the interests of every widow, charity, servant, or relation Sylvia Howland had known, dozens of people waiting in the wings for their share of Sylvia’s largesse. It was Hetty against the world, or, in any case, that corner of the world that for most of her life she had called home.
The case as it played out in court essentially became two separate trials. On the one hand was the intrigue of the rich spinster aunt and the ambitious, covetous niece, the lonely nights in the gloomy lamplight at Round Hill farm, the servants’ gossip, nurses being shoved down stairs, temper tantrums and frayed nerves, all of it reading like the precursor to some modern-day soap opera. On the other hand was a painstaking scientific case involving the signatures and allegations of forgery. This side of the case was in its own way as fascinating as the former, not the least because of the collection of famous minds assembled to offer opinions.
The piece of physical evidence upon which Hetty pinned her highest hopes was the now-notorious “second page”—the addendum to Sylvia’s 1862 will. Introduced into evidence, the page read:
Be it remembered that I, Sylvia Ann Howland, of New Bedford, in County of Bristol, do hereby make, publish and declare this the second page of this will and testament made on the eleventh of January in manner following, to wit: Hereby revoking all wills made by me before or after this one—I give this will to my niece to shew if there appears a will made without notifying her, and without returning her will to her through Thomas Mandell as I have promised to do. I implore the Judge to decide in favor of this will, as nothing would induce me to make a will unfavorable to my niece, but being ill and afraid if any of my care-takers insisted on my making a will to refuse, as they might leave or be angry, and knowing my niece had this will to show—my niece fearing also after she went away—I hearing but one side, might feel hurt at what they might say of her, as they tried to make trouble by not telling the truth to me, when she was here even herself. I give this will to my niece to show if absolutely necessary, to have it, to appear against another will found after my death. I wish her to shew this will, made when I am in good health for me, and my old torn will made on the fourth of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and fifty, to show also as proof that it has been my lifetime wish for her to have my property. I therefore give my property to my niece as freely as my father gave it to me. I have promised him once, and my sister a number of times, to give it all to her, all excepting about one hundred thousand dollars in presents to my friends and relations.
In witness whereof I have set hereto my hand and seal this eleventh of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two.
Sylvia Ann Howland.
Whenever (and by whomever) this document was conceived, it was painfully obvious that the author sought to allay not Sylvia’s fears, but Hetty’s. The wording is almost comically inept. A skilled con artist would have made the document more general, more ambiguous and sweeping. As written, it is difficult to read the second page and see it as anything other than a rather pathetic last-minute response to Aunt Sylvias final will. The ham-handed appeal to the judge anticipated too closely the court case. The reference to $100,000 for friends and relations seemed an obvious component of Hetty’s campaign to sway Electa and others to her side. Beyond the wording, Hetty’s explanation of how the will was written and signed stretched credulity, to say the least. Why had the contents of the second page not simply been written into the will? As presented into evidence, the papers had pinholes around the edges. Hetty suggested that she and Sylvia sewed the sheets together so as to keep prying eyes away from the contents. They had written the second page as a separate document in order to spare embarrassment if, upon Sylvia’s death, her caretakers had not succeeded in forcing her to write a new will. “If they did not get the advantage of her, then I could detach it, only showing it to Mr. Mandell, and perhaps the Judge,” Hetty explained.
It took the defense no time at all to label the document a fake. But what occupied a lions share of the case was not the document itself, but Aunt Sylvia’s signature at the bottom. Nobody questioned the authenticity of Sylvia’s signature on the 1862 will—which, after all, had been made in the presence of three witnesses. But Hetty was the only witness as Sylvia supposedly signed two copies of the second page, one for each of them to keep. The signatures on all three items looked almost exactly alike, indicating that someone had copied or traced the two “second page” signatures from the signature on the will. Was Hetty Robinson a forger?
Rarely had such a collection of scientific celebrities been assembled for one case. In their zeal to top one another, both sides sought the greatest names they could find for their professional opinions—among them Louis Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Benjamin Peirce, and John Quincy Adams, grandson and namesake of the sixth president of the United States. Their depositions were taken separately over several months, mostly in the Boston office of Special Examiner Francis W. Palfrey. But the collective star power, combined with the lure of the wealth involved, made the case one of the most watched civil cases of the century.
Of all the expert witnesses called, Louis Agassiz, the eminent Harvard naturalist, seemed to take the greatest pleasure in the assignment. The Swiss-born Agassiz had published groundbreaking works on zoology and geology in Europe, including a study of glaciers that first shed light on the existence of the Ice Age. His work had made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 1846 he had come to America to lecture and study. By 1848 he was in place as chairman of the Department of Natural History at Harvard, where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He was at the height of his fame, and just a month shy of his sixtieth birthday, when Sidney Bartlett, lead council for Hetty’s side, delivered Sylvia’s signatures to Agassiz at his office at the museum on a spring day in 1867. Agassiz set about examining them under a microscope. He was delighted with the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Agassiz basked in his reputation as a scientific genius. Testifying for Hetty’s side, Agassiz said, “I have been devoting my whole life to the study of natural history. I began as a child, and have pursued it to this day; I am studying now; I am a student; that pursuit involves the use of the microscope very extensively.” Asked if he would consider himself an expert with a microscope, Agassiz replied, dryly, in his heavily accented English, “He that has had long training is a master, if he brings the proper application, proper care, to his work.”
In this case, Agassiz had been asked specifically to check for signs of pencil marks underneath the ink in the two signatures in question. Pencil, of course, would be a dead giveaway that the signatures were traced first.
I have examined these papers very carefully, in the way in which I generally examine objects submitted to various magnifying powers. First, with my naked eye, and with spectacles, and with simple lenses of various powers from one half to two diameters. Such a preliminary examination I always make, in order to become acquainted with the object in its totality, when the low power permits to see the whole object at one time, and ascertain its general appearance. I next examined it with the compound microscope, with three-inch power, when entire letters or even words might be seen simultaneously. I then applied higher powers, half-inch, and four-tenths. Handwriting does not admit of higher than these powers, because then only small parts of the letters can be brought under the focus.
Then, with the excitement of a child seeing for the first time a tiny world enlarged to the gigantic, Agassiz described the structure of the paper like some foreign landscape of dips and hills, transversed by rivers of ink frozen in time:
The highest powers used disclosed clearly the texture of the paper, and the manner in which the materials used for writing—the material—is distributed in its structure. With such a power, it appears that the paper consists of fibers felted together, intercrossing each other in every direction, not unlike a pile of chips, pressed together. It is easy to trace with the microscope the fibers that lie at the surface, and distinguish these with those at successive greater depths. Into this felt the ink has penetrated, and penetrated unevenly, the thicker parts of the ink being accumulated along the more superficial fibers of the felt, the more fluid part penetrating deeper, and here and there both merging together.
The ink, Agassiz said, lay in varying thickness on the paper; “under the microscope, the thicker clots of ink resembled mud, caught up under brush on a riverbank, after a spring freshet.” All of this indicated to Agassiz that the signatures had been composed in a natural hand. With regard to pencil marks, he said, his examination “did not disclose the slightest indication of materials foreign to the ink as seen in any part of the signature. Pencil not being a fluid substance, if used in this case, would have left its mark on the superficial fibers of the paper, and remained there, while, in every part of the letters which look lighter than the others, the lighter color is deeper in the substance of the paper, and the accuracy with which the focus of the microscope may be made to bear in succession from the surface deeper, leaves no doubt upon this point.” He added, “I have carefully compared the three signatures, besides examining them singly, and in not one of them can I detect indications of the use of two kinds of materials tracing the letters.”
Three weeks after Agassiz’s testimony, Bartlett delivered the signatures for examination to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous author and Parkman Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the Harvard Medical School. Trained in both law and medicine, Holmes was at fifty-seven one of the most revered figures in Boston, indeed, in the country, a true Renaissance figure. He was equally at home writing light verse, psychological novels, or disquisitions on “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever.” He was a founder of and one of the most prolific contributors to the Atlantic Monthly. As a twenty-one-year-old law student at Harvard, he had written the poem “Old Ironsides”—which was credited with saving the historic ship Constitution and remains a staple in anthologies of nineteenth-century poetry. But it was his expertise with a microscope that attracted the attention of Hetty’s lawyers.
“With the mechanical arrangements of the microscope, not the optical, I have made certain improvements, I think,” Holmes modestly told a questioner the morning after his examination of the signatures. Holmes had examined the paper using simple and compound microscopes, by both daylight and gaslight. His analysis essentially corroborated that of Agassiz. “I found nothing to show that either was traced,” Holmes declared.
But it would not be sufficient simply to establish the absence of pencil marks. Hetty’s lawyers had to overcome the improbability of Sylvia’s signature appearing almost identical on three separate documents, when even the most consistent penmanship is likely to produce slight variations from signature to signature. With or without the aid of pencils, this stretched credulity to the breaking point. So the lawyers rounded up examples of individuals whose signatures repeated often, demonstrating a capacity for repeating words as well as signature traits. Among these people was one Samuel W. Swett, president of Suffolk National Bank in Boston, who said, “The remarkable uniformity of my signatures has been remarked upon. I should think that if a man was signing his name a good many times a day, his signature would become very uniform…. I suppose this uniformity in my signature arises from my signing my name so frequently.”
Of course, this argument might be seen as just as valuable for Hetty’s opponents, for it threw into stark contrast the image of a hale and hearty bank president signing dozens of documents per day, and a lonely, disabled shut-in, who had quite literally to be placed in front of a document, at times with a pen inserted between her fingers, in order to sign anything at all. No matter, the complainants charged on.
Lawyers for the estate located a variety of other individuals with consistent penmanship, the most prominent among these being John Quincy Adams. The sixth president had been dead for nearly twenty years, but he became an unwitting participant after his thirty-three-year-old grandson discovered in the president’s old study a chest containing dozens of canceled personal checks. The grandson’s testimony served primarily to establish that the checks were, in fact, in the handwriting of the president, and that the president never used a stamp of his signature on checks, always preferring to sign them individually.
A series of engravers, tracers, and penmanship experts were then enlisted to examine the various multiple copies of signatures of these individuals, to see whether their handwriting might duplicate, or “cover,” as well as or better than the signatures of Sylvia. What followed was a detailed, exhaustive digression into the arts of penmanship, mapmaking, photography, and assorted other fields with ever more tenuous relation to the issues at hand. John A. Lowell, a twenty-nine-year-old Boston engraver, found, upon examining hundreds of sets of signatures, “quite a number … covered quite as well, or better, in my opinion” than the purported Sylvia signatures. No doubt Lowell was an expert in his field but it is difficult to imagine a judge following or paying attention for long to his testimony, a small segment of which serves to represent the overall tone: “I found of the J. Q. Adams lot, No. 24 matched with No. 49, covered as well as the best one, and that No. 51 with 58, did not cover as well as does No. 10 does with No. 1, but better than 15 does with one.”
George Mathiot, head of the electrotype and photographic division of the United States Coast Survey Office in Washington, submitted to no fewer than five days of mind-spinning, posterior-numbing testimony on ever more arcane subjects. An expert on tracing, Mathiot had devised a method for reducing table-sized maps to standard paper size, for publishing purposes. Hetty’s lawyers had enlisted him to examine signature pairs and testify with authority, as had Lowell, that lots of signatures covered better than Sylvia’s. Mathiot did so, but his testimony, especially under cross-examination, drifted onto subjects ranging from the attributes of various lens types, the manufacturing process of paper, and the type and configuration of clamps used to hold paper to drafting tables at the Coast Survey Office. One excruciating session, covering much of an afternoon and extending into the following morning, concerned the relative merits of the Voigtlander lens. When, nearing the end of his testimony, Mathiot was asked by one of the respondents’ lawyers whether his examination of the signatures had been a long or short one, he replied, “A long and tedious one.” It is safe to say that everyone present could feel his pain.
The respondents’ lawyers, for their part, produced an equal number of witnesses claiming precisely the opposite, that signatures so uniform and precise could be nothing but forgeries. George A. Sawyer, a forty-four-year-old teacher of penmanship and bookkeeping, said of the copies of the second page: “They are not natural; they are studied. They exhibit great effort to make them look exactly like No. 1 [the signature on the will].” Sawyer described his suspicion of fakery as immediate and visceral. “It is my conviction—it was my conviction when I saw it at first. Detectors of counterfeit money and those in the habit of studying manuscript often form an opinion without being able to express the reason in words. It would be impossible for me to express in words all the reasons for not thinking those signatures 10 and 15 [the copies of the second page] were genuine.”
George N. Comer, president of Commercial College, a Boston trade school specializing in penmanship, bookkeeping, and similar arts, was called in to provide two important points. One was to show that the signatures could easily have been traced without the use of a pencil, thus deflating the impact of the august Agassiz and Holmes. The second-page signature appeared to be “written over No. 1 without the intervention of pencil or other tracing, and is consequently more flowing,” Comer said. But he added, “The whole signature bears the evidence to me of having been written over or copied from another, and does not have the character which the genuine signatures have.”
But the defense wasn’t all just obscure penmanship experts. The lawyers for the estate showed that they would bring out the celebrity firepower by producing as witnesses famed Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce and his celebrated son, Charles. An astronomer and mathematician born and raised in Salem, Peirce had spent the first part of his career teaching and writing dry and somewhat unremarkable textbooks, before his landmark A System of Analytic Mechanics in 1855 made him a celebrity. He had taken a leading role in establishing the Harvard Observatory, making many notable astronomical discoveries and observations. He had served on the committee drawing a plan for the Smithsonian Institution. For fifteen years he had served as director of longitude determinations for the United States Coast Survey, and in 1867 had just been appointed the Survey’s superintendent. This must have made for interesting office politics for the beleaguered George Mathiot, who had testified at such length for Hetty’s side.
Peirce’s twenty-seven-year-old son, Charles, had followed closely in his father’s footsteps. The elder Peirce had provided much of Charles’s early mathematics education, and, after graduating from Harvard, where his father taught, Charles went to work in 1861 for the Coast Survey, where he would spend the next thirty years. At his father’s direction, Charles Peirce closely examined the three Hetty signatures for improbable similarities that would have been unlikely to occur in the natural course of signing separate documents. The Peirces paid special attention to the downstrokes of the pen, which would have the greatest tendency to vary from signature to signature if written naturally. “The proposed signature must be analyzed into its characteristic lines,” Peirce said. “The safest and surest mode of performing this analysis is to adopt for the characteristic lines all those which consist wholly or in part of a downward stroke.”
In poring over the signatures, Charles Peirce had found no fewer than thirty identical downstrokes—downstrokes being, as the term implies, the two times in the forming of, say, a “w,” when the pen makes a downward slash. In addition to being a mathematical genius, Benjamin Peirce possessed an eye for the marketable quote, the sound bite in a pre-sound bite age. Sensing that thirty identical pairings of downstrokes might not possess sufficient force to impress the judges and the press, Peirce converted this finding into a mathematical probability that would be repeated in virtually every newspaper account of the trial. “In the case of Sylvia Ann Howland,” he said, “this phenomenon could occur only once in the number of times expressed by the thirtieth power of five, or, more exactly it is once in (2,666) two thousand six hundred and sixty-six millions of millions of millions of times, or 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000.”
With his flair for drama and language, Peirce added, “This number far transcends human experience. So vast an improbability is practically an impossibility. Such evanescent shadows of probability cannot belong to actual life. They are unimaginably less than those least things the law cares not for.”
It was almost anticlimactic when Peirce introduced another variable making the odds against the signatures being genuine even more remote. This was that the signatures, despite having been written on unlined paper, were all written with each letter on the same level. This would add an additional improbability on the relatively minor and anticlimactic order of one in 200 million.
As if it needed being stated, Benjamin Peirce offered his personal assurance that the signatures were not genuine and that, by implication (though he didn’t say this), Hetty was guilty of forgery. In this matter, he intoned, “I have the utmost degree of confidence.”