Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified graphologist Beverley East as Barbara East. This version has been corrected.

John Wilkes Booth's calling card to Andrew Johnson, dated April 14, 1865. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army). (Courtesy National Archives/Courtesy National Archives)
A window into their souls: Handwriting

The new exhibit at the National Archives collects notable signatures, from the X of Harriet Tubman to the flamboyant swirl of John Hancock, the Massachusetts representative whose name became a synonym for signature. But what does an analysis of historical handwriting tell us? We asked D.C.-based graphologist and court-qualified forensic document examiner Beverley East to examine a few examples of handwriting from the exhibit “Making Their Mark” without telling her who the writers were (though a couple of signatures made it obvious). What personality traits were reflected in the writing of these famous people?

John Wilkes Booth

Item: A calling card left at Vice President Andrew Johnson’s hotel, hours before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Was he checking on the location of Johnson’s room for his co-conspirator George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill the vice president that night but did not, or was he in cahoots with the V.P.? Historians still argue over its significance.

Analysis: East determined that because of the double stems, or star in the “T” bar on words such as “with” and his own signature, “once his mind was made up, don’t ask twice. He was stubborn.” He was also a “very hands-on person,” as shown by the flat top of the letter “r.” And, owing to the lower loops in the letters, she determined that “when given a task, he had the ability to stay the course until completion.”

Frederick Douglass

Item: A letter asking President Abraham Lincoln for “a great favor” — a discharge for his son, Lewis, from the Army because of illness. Lewis Douglass had been the first African American to enlist as a Union soldier from New York in 1863.

Analysis: In the sweeping “T” bars, East recognized an enthusiastic individual “who wants to know why, where, how and when” (shown in the V-shapes of the letters “m” and “n”). The right slant of his writing shows he is “ruled by his heart and passionate about all his undertakings”; the knots in the letter “f” show he is persistent and persuasive.

Jacqueline Kennedy

Item: A letter to former president Herbert Hoover expressing gratitude for their meeting in January 1956, when she found him “wiser and kinder than I could have ever imagined.”

Analysis: The then-senator’s wife “was a gentle soul and complete optimist,” East says, evident in the large upward “T” bars that show optimism. The light pressure of the writing shows her gentleness; the extremely large upper loops in her writing showed “her creative mind was constantly filled with big ideas.” Her strong level of self-esteem, shown by the large personal pronoun “I,” “protected her from glaring eyes and vicious comments.”

Julia Child

Item: Application to the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, in 1942. Beginning as a typist, she eventually traveled the world on assignments, meeting fellow OSS employee and future husband Paul Child while on assignment to Ceylon in 1945.

Julia (McWilliams) Child's Office of Strategic Services application, June 12, 1942. National Archives, Records of the Office of Strategic Services. (Courtesy National Archives)

Analysis: Through Child’s handwriting, East found her “direct and to the point with no hidden agenda . . . the semi-printed large script tells us this. She makes no bones about speaking her mind.” Strong dots on the “i” that are close to the stem give her “a fine eye for detail,” East says. But the “t” bar crossed to the left of the stem in the word “advertising” indicates that “when she was overwhelmed, she had a tendency to procrastinate.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.

In National Archives exhibit, signed letters help tell the story of our nation — and beyond