Typewriters in Crime

Does a typewriter leave a distinct fingerprint, and can it be forged?

By Robert Messenger

"I think of writing another little monograph some of these days on the typewriter and its relation to crime."

Sherlock Holmes
(“A Case of Identity”, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891).

Sherlock Holmes was a detective who, in his application of forensic science, was away ahead of his time. The fictional hero of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most cherished works anticipated the examination of typewritten documents by three years.

Holmes had unlocked the mystery of Hosmer Angel and unmasked James Windibank in “A Case of Identity” in 1891. In 1894, real crime investigators began to take an interest in examining typewritten matter. Document expert William Elijah Hagan (1826-1902) wrote, "All typewriter machines, even when using the same kind of type, become more or less peculiar by use as to the work done by them." Hagan devoted a chapter to the Theodore Hunter case of 1891, which involved a carbon copy of a typewritten will.

Eventually, in 1913, Congress amended the US Code to cover typewriting. An early concern was the possible admission of forged typewriter documents, and in 1915 People v Risley involved the first known attempt at a forgery with the use of a typewriter. An expert told the court he had inspected 20,000 typewriters without seeing one that was perfect; that alignment was practically the “heart” of the typewriter and a machine could not be manufactured so the alignment would be perfect. A mathematician testified, in response to a hypothetical question regarding the occurrence of any one defect in a random typewriter, that the probability of coincidence was one in four billion.

The most famous US court case involving a typewriter (in this instance a Woodstock standard) resulted in the 1950 conviction for perjury of alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss (1904-1996). For typewriter historians, study of this case is most relevant for first raising the possibility of the successful forgery of typewritten documents and the production of typewriters which could identically match the print of another machine – a skill apparently developed by US military intelligence during World War II.

Peter V.Tytell (1945 - ) is the greatest living typewriter document examiner. He testified for the prosecution in the 1999 case against Lawrence X. Cusack III, who was convicted of defrauding investors in a scheme to sell typewritten documents that supposedly linked President John F. Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe and Chicago mobster Sam Giancana. Cusack used a machine with a typeface which was created almost a decade after Kennedy and Monroe had died, as well a method of correcting mistakes.