Handwriting is like a fingerprint—no one else will ever have the same longhand as you. Handwriting is an identifier, and many people believe that your lettering style reveals the different facets of your personality; aspects such as how you slant your lines and if you keep your loops open or close them off reveal underlying characteristics. We tend to think that this has something to say about us, and in a way, it does. At least for forensic scientists, that is.
Calligraphers have long debated the validity of handwriting analysis. Same with polygraph tests, many wonder if these samples should be admissible in court. However, the science of handwriting analysis, in contrast to these tests, has been developing for over a century. In the 1870s, a French priest named Jean Michon wrote and published his extensive research on handwriting analysis and coined the term graphology. By the end of the 19th century, there was a massive increase in applying psychology to art. This was the start of handwriting analysis and how we can use it to learn more about each other.
In order to do their research, experts must have samples to study from. When they are trying to determine a match, they’ll use formal and informal exemplars. The formal exemplar is a document where the author is known. These may be handwritten work documents, signatures, or grocery lists. Informal exemplars are the samples that they’re trying to find a match for. These are oftentimes ransom notes or letters that arrived anonymously. Obviously, the more samples that are available, the more conclusive the results are considered to be.
The first thing experts oftentimes look for is dissimilarities. They examine characteristics such as how the writer forms their letters and lines in order to find inconsistencies between the samples. The shape of the letters isn’t the only thing that one has to factor, however. Oftentimes they’ll examine the materials as well, as these can reveal important clues. For example, the writing instrument itself is something to consider. A bronze pen is heavier than a plastic one, and this can affect the fluidity of the writer’s movements, as well as how the ink dispelled.
However, in many cases there may have been attempts to disguise the handwriting, especially with informal exemplars. For example, look at the ransom note from the infamous JonBenét Ramsey case. You can see that the handwriting is shaky, and that the writer used considerable pressure on the page. It isn’t uncommon for authors to use techniques and methods akin to these in an effort to throw experts off.
Nonetheless, just because the author has altered the appearance of their writing, distinguishing characteristics can still stand out. This is why examiners must take these factors into account and determine the differences in their samples before anything else. If the differences in the disguised note are inconsistent and the similarities between the formal and informal samples stay the same, the experts may have something to go off of.
There are factors that go into these investigations that no one can explain in a mere few words, which is why the many people question the accuracy of the examinations. It’s nearly impossible to come up with a definitive answer—it’s actually easier to use typewriters as evidence since investigators can examine the ribbons. However, it’s a method that can lead to other evidence, or even confessions, should the suspect become nervous when it’s presented to them. Regardless of its conclusiveness, handwriting analysis is an incredibly admirable artform that has led to various positive outcomes. We’re curious to see how far it will go.