Forgeries in Politics

Ballot-box stuffing may be one of the most frequently alleged forms of fraud during any given election season, but there are other sorts of interesting political fraud. Putting aside the various forms of fraud perpetrated in order to bring about voter suppression (which, incidentally, occurs much more frequently and with greater effect than ballot-box stuffing), the forgery of documents occasionally enters into the political fray, often leaving behind fascinating historical artifacts.

In Swann’s May 5 Autographs auction, authentic letters by two U.S. presidents will be offered, each of which discusses a forgery whose creator presumably intended to influence presidential politics by illegitimate means.

Harry S. Truman, Typed Letter Signed "Harry" as President, to James M. Pendergast

Lot 213: Harry S. Truman, Typed Letter Signed “Harry” as President, to James M. Pendergast, 16 August 1952. Estimate $500 to $750.

 

Lot 213 contains a typed letter, signed in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman, to his long-time friend and Kansas City political associate, James M. Pendergast. The letter refers to an enclosure, which Truman found astonishing enough to share with his friend. The enclosure was a manuscript letter, written on unlined paper, addressed to “H.S. Truman” and signed with the name “J. Pendergast” (we know the details of the enclosure because it remains with Truman’s letter as part of lot 213). Truman conveys to his friend that the “Pendergast” letter is obviously a forgery, and expresses the hopeless desire to prosecute the culprit. The forgery accuses the President of opportunistically changing his position on crucial issues (possibly concerning U.S. policy on the Korean War) and criticizes his relationship with the Ambassador to Mexico, William O’Dwyer, and others. It is possible that the forgery was intended as a joke or insult, as the hand looks nothing like Pendergast’s, and the postmark on the envelope shows it was sent from Chicago, rather than Kansas City. It would seem more likely, however, that the forger genuinely hoped Truman would believe the letter came from his friend, as it might, in that case, have a greater likelihood of making an impact than a letter from an unknown citizen.

It would seem the forger knew nothing of, or was unimpressed by, the famous examples of influential letters to the president written by people with no personal connection to the holder of that office.

It would seem the forger knew nothing of, or was unimpressed by, the famous examples of influential letters to the president written by people with no personal connection to the holder of that office. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is the letter written on October 15, 1860, by 11-year old Grace Bedell, who suggested that Lincoln would have a better chance of winning the presidential election if he were to grow a full beard since it would make him more attractive by filling out his narrow face. Moreover, she added, “all the ladies like whiskers.” Soon after receiving the letter, Lincoln did grow a full beard for the first time in his life—and won the election. Today, Bedell’s letter can be viewed at the Detroit Public Library.

James A. Garfield, Two Autograph Letters Signed, "J.A. Garfield,"

Lot 129: James A. Garfield, Two Autograph Letters Signed, “J.A. Garfield,” 23 October 1880. Estimate $1,000 to $1,500.

 

The letters in lot 129 were written by Republican presidential nominee James A. Garfield to Republican National Committee chairman Marshall Jewell, expressing his outrage that the Democrats had published a completely fictional letter and presented it as if it were written by Garfield: “Every honest and manly Democrat in America who is familiar with my hand-writing, will denounce the forgery at sight. Put the case in the hands of able detectives at once, and hunt the rascals down.” In the weeks prior to the 1880 presidential election, Democratic National Committee chairman William Barnum irresponsibly or fraudulently approved the publication of a letter allegedly written by Garfield in the Tammany Hall newspaper The Truth. In the published letter, the Garfield impersonator advocated unrestricted Chinese immigration, a view which both Democrats and Republicans knew to be unpopular in California and elsewhere in the West. The national election took place before the error or deception could be adequately corrected, and while Garfield narrowly won the election, he had lost California and Nevada to Democratic presidential candidate Winfield S. Hancock, as well as nearly losing Oregon.

It is not difficult to imagine that history might well have been different, had Truman been persuaded in 1952 by the forged letter from “Pendergast” (unlikely though it might be) to, say, pursue resolutely one policy in Korea; or had enough voters in Oregon been influenced in 1880 by the forged letter from “Garfield” to make Winfield S. Hancock the 20th president of the United States.

 

For more examples of interesting correspondence related to important historical figures, take a look at the complete catalogue for our upcoming auction.