Archivist talks about history of forgery

Matthew Adams

During a lecture at Rainey Hall on Thursday, information professor emeritus David Gracy talked about the long history of document forgery.

Gracy has spent much of his life working with historical Texas documents, as he has served on the Texas State Historical Association and other history groups. As part of his talk, which the UT chapter of the Society of American Archivists hosted, Gracy talked about the Davy Crockett and José Enrique de la Peña letters.

Historians have debated whether Davy Crockett died in battle or was instead executed by Mexican General Santa Anna after surrendering, as de la Peña claimed in his letters. 

“Having looked at all of the characteristics of that letter, we could not claim that it was forged,” Gracy said. “There was nothing obscure about the letter.”

According to Gracy, the Crockett letter itself was a different story. What some believed to be the last letter Crockett wrote was sold to the Texas State Historical Association before a state official realized this letter was a fake because of the embossing in the left-hand corner. 

“History means many things to people,” Gracy said. “As we deal with history, we are always dealing with the questions of how do we know what we base history on is real and how do we [know] whether any physical document is not forgery.”

Gracy said forgeries date back to the fifth century B.C. during the Olympic games, and they have been a large part of history from then on.

Gracy reviewed the forgeries of William Henry Ireland and Vrain-Denis Lucas from the 18th and 19th centuries. Ireland was a British forger of Shakespeare’s plays and other works, and he also attempted to replicate Shakespeare’s signature based on a few remaining letters. Gracy said he believes Lucas is the most prolific forger of all time. Lucas was a French forger in the 19th century who forged more than 27,000 copies of letters. Of these copies, he tried to replicate the letters of Alexander the Great, Mary Magdalene and Galileo Galilei.

Well into the 20th century, the world would see many more forgers. Gracy offered several notable examples, such as Clifford Irving, who attempted to forge a Howard Hughes autobiography in 1971, and Konrad Kujau, who forged and then claimed to have discovered the “Hitler Diaries” in 1983.

Information graduate student Lilly Carrell said she was excited to listen to Gracy’s lecture.

“It is exciting to hear Dr. Gracy because he is an engaging and interesting speaker,” Carrell said. “As part of the archives department, Gracy is a legend.”

Katherine Isham, information studies graduate student, said the long history of forgery surprised her.

“Hearing Dr. Gracy, I am amazed with the effort that people will put in to faking such documents,” Isham said.