Has the Declaration of Independence been defaced?
Did someone rewrite and enhance signatures on the hallowed parchment?
And is that - and the grimy handprint on the document - the result of 20th-century bungling?
Two retired experts with the National Archives who have carefully scrutinized the Declaration think the answers all are yes.
Sometime between 1903 and 1940, officials with access to the Declaration of Independence marred the treasured document, rewriting or overwriting famous signatures and leaving behind a print of a left hand, the experts think.
The two scholars contend that it was also during this period that the handwriting on the Declaration was mysteriously diminished, costing it more of its already dwindling original ink. Now, little of that ink survives.
"Between 1903 . . . and 1940 someone . . . took drastic steps that altered the document significantly . . . [in] what can only be described as the defacement - even if unintentional - of the Declaration," the authors wrote in the fall issue of the National Archives quarterly magazine, Prologue.
"The defining damage that made the Declaration what it is today was not the result of 19th-century copying or excessive exhibition, but occurred in the 20th century," wrote Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, the Archives' retired chief of conservation, and Catherine Nicholson, the retired deputy chief.
"Something happened after 1903 that caused that damage, and made people . . . enhance the signatures," Ritzenthaler said in an interview Friday.
Perhaps it was a botched mounting technique or a flattening procedure, she said.
"Somebody might have tried something and didn't have very good results, and this was their reaction," Ritzenthaler said.
The handprint is also a mystery. "A dirty hand. An inky hand. Why would you do that?" she said.
"The document is sufficiently big that . . . if it's on a table, when someone's leaning over, it's kind of a natural action to put your hand down in that corner," she said. "So you can envision how it happened."
The 240-year-old Declaration, housed in a special case in the National Archives rotunda in Washington, is now extremely faded, and much of it is barely legible.
In 2002, the experts removed it from its 50-year-old encasement and examined it in preparation for a new case.
"We did a whole lot of close examination and photography," Ritzenthaler said. "It was like being a detective."
While the handprint is clear, the alterations are scarcely noticeable, she said. But for conservators, they are crucial, and something that would never be done today. "Nowadays it would be considered defacement," she said.
The authors reached their conclusions by examining old photographs, mainly one taken in 1903 that shows few of the current flaws in the document, which gave birth to the United States on July 4, 1776.
The Declaration was written out by Timothy Matlack, a clerk in the Pennsylvania State House - now Philadelphia's Independence Hall - between July 19 and Aug. 2.
Photographs of the Declaration were commissioned by Congress in 1922, but they have never been found. During research in 1940, when it was examined by a conservator from Harvard's Fogg Museum, the image of the handprint in the lower left corner was first mentioned, the authors wrote.
"There had been some kind of folk history that it happened in the 1870s or 1880s when the document was in a print shop in Philadelphia to be mounted," Ritzenthaler said.
"But then you see the 1903 photograph . . . and it's clearly not there," she said.
She said it also looks as if someone may have tried to rub out the handprint. She said she did not know if fingerprints could be obtained from the image: "Maybe a forensic person could look at a print like that and try to discern something."
In addition, the changes to the signatures, first noticed in the 1940s, do not appear in the 1903 photograph, the authors wrote.
Fifty-six men, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, signed the Declaration. Many of the signatures, including Jefferson's, are either gone or barely visible today, and the enhancements probably were done to try to reverse that.
In particular, the "J" and the "H" in John Hancock's ornate signature were enhanced, Ritzenthaler and Nicholson wrote.
Other names visible in the center columns "show evidence of partial enhancement or recreation of missing signatures," Ritzenthaler added in an email.
In the interviews, Ritzenthaler said there was nothing in the public or official record about the alterations or the handprint.
"You would think . . . that if something so astounding had happened, like enhancing the signatures that are pretty iconic, or a mistaken handprint, that someone would have noted that," she said. "And there might have been an outcry in the press."
"We don't really know under whose watch these things happened," she said. "I suspect in response to this damage that people probably felt terrible."
By 1903, the Declaration, already well traveled, worn and fading, was being held in protective storage by the State Department.
That April, at the request of Secretary of State John Hay, it was photographed by Levin C. Handy, a relative and protege of Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
In 1921, the Declaration was transferred to the Library of Congress and placed on display in the Great Hall of the library's Jefferson Building, on Capitol Hill.
It came to the National Archives in 1952.
"Something happened to the Declaration between 1903 and 1940 that was not documented or has not yet been uncovered," the authors concluded. "It is like a puzzle for which some pieces . . . are missing."
FLETCHER, N.C. - As he took the stage here in this mountain town Friday afternoon, Donald Trump was as subdued as the modest crowd that turned out to see him. He complained about the usual things - the dishonest media, his "corrupt" rival Hillary Clinton - but his voice was hoarse and his heart didn't seem in it.
He also promised to do all that he could to win, but he explained why he might lose.
"What a waste of time if we don't pull this off," Trump said. "You know, these guys have said: 'It doesn't matter if you win or lose. There's never been a movement like this in the history of this country.' I say, it matters to me if we win or lose. So I'll have over $100 million of my own money in this campaign."
"So, if I lose," Trump continued as the crowd remained unusually quiet, "if I lose, I will consider this -"
Trump didn't finish his sentence, but he didn't really need to. After weeks of controversy and declining poll numbers, Trump and his campaign have settled into a dark funk. Even as he vows to prevail in the race, the Republican nominee's mood has soured with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.
His final debate performance this week was a bust, with him snarling that Clinton was "such a nasty woman" and gritting his teeth as he angrily ripped pages off a notepad when it was over. He is under fire from all quarters for refusing to say he will honor the election results if he loses, while 10 women have now come forward accusing him of groping or kissing them without consent. The capper to Trump's bad stretch came Thursday night, when a ballroom full of New York City's glitterati booed him as he gave remarks attacking Clinton at a charity roast.
The gloomy mood has extended to his signature rallies, which Trump used to find fun. During the primaries, he would bound onto rally stages bursting with energy and a sense of excitement that intensified as the crowds chanted his name and cheered his every word. He would regularly schedule news conferences, call into news shows and chat with reporters, eager to spar with them. He would say politically incorrect things and then watch his polling numbers soar. He used to be the winner.
But no more. In recent days, Trump has tried to explain away his slide in the polls as a conspiracy carried out by the media, Democrats and Republicans. If he loses, it will be because he was cheated, Trump has repeatedly told his supporters, urging them to go to polling places in neighborhoods other than their own and "watch."
Trump's supporters have concocted elaborate explanations for why he might lose, often involving massive voter fraud conducted by Democrats who will bus undocumented immigrants and people posing as people who have died to battleground states to vote illegally. There are also fears that election results in some states will be tampered with, and Trump's backers have cheered his promise to challenge the election results if he doesn't win.
"Since we can't check to see if you voted in three states, you will. If you want to vote in three states, you will," said Larry Lewis, 67, a former electrician who lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He said he doesn't know anyone who has committed voter fraud but has gotten up to speed on the issue thanks to talk radio. "I mean, that is human nature. I have ultimate faith in human nature."
Campaigning Friday in Cleveland, Clinton again criticized Trump for refusing to say he will honor the election results and joked about her time onstage debating him. "I have now spent 4 1/2 hours onstage with Donald, proving once again I have the stamina to be president," she said.
After the debate Wednesday night, Trump flew to Ohio for a Thursday rally. He abruptly walked out of two local television interviews before taking the stage in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd. After it was over, he was back at the Columbus airport, slowly plodding up the steps to his personal jet. He was alone, holding a black umbrella as a light rain fell.
Hours later, Trump sat with his wife at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner to participate in the long-standing tradition of political candidates roasting each other. The dinner's chairman, Alfred E. Smith IV, set the tone for the evening as he lashed Trump in a series of cutting jokes.
Trump went first, and his opening lines landed with such heavy bitterness that it prompted scattered, uncomfortable laughter.
"A special hello to all of you in this room who have known and loved me for many, many years. It's true," Trump said as he took command of the lavish dais, wearing a white tie and a black jacket that he kept tugging at.
"The politicians," he continued. "They've had me to their homes, they've introduced me to their children. I've become their best friends in many instances. They've asked for my endorsement, and they always wanted my money, and even called me really a dear, dear friend, but then suddenly decided when I ran for president as a Republican, that I've always been a no-good, rotten, disgusting scoundrel. And they totally forgot about me."
Over the next 15 minutes, Trump joked about the size of his hands and the size of his rival's rally crowds, then compared himself to Jesus. He said the debate the night before had been called "the most vicious debate in the history of politics," prompting him to reflect, "Are we supposed to be proud of that?"
He joked about prosecuting Clinton if he gets elected president, accused the media of working for her and brought up the FBI's investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state.
"Hillary is so corrupt, she got kicked off the Watergate Commission," Trump said, citing a false Internet rumor as the crowd turned on him and started to boo, something that simply doesn't happen at lavish charity dinners at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The face of one of the guests sitting on the stage behind him was struck with horror.
"Hillary believes that it's vital to deceive the people by having one public policy and a totally different policy in private," Trump said, as the booing intensified. Trump would go on to accuse Clinton of "pretending not to hate Catholics" and mock the Clinton Foundation's work in Haiti.
At one point, he wondered aloud whether the crowd was booing him or Clinton, to which someone in the crowd answered: "You!"
As Clinton took her turn, Trump sat at a table decorated with pale roses and white orchids with his arms tightly folded.
"Donald looks at the Statue of Liberty and sees a four, maybe a five if she loses the torch and tablet and changes her hair," Clinton said, as the crowd laughed and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani mouthed, "What?"
Trump, his arms folded, cocked his head to the side and smirked as his wife looked elegantly pained.
A few minutes later, Clinton poked Trump for his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin: "Maybe you saw Donald dismantle his prompter the other day, and I get that. They're hard to keep up with, and I'm sure it's even harder when you're translating from the original Russian."
Trump smiled and rocked in his seat, his face turning slightly red.
Clinton recognized former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying it was a shame he didn't speak, because "I'm curious to hear what a billionaire has to say," referring to disputes about Trump's actual net worth.
And she gave a shout-out to Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, saying: "She's working day and night for Donald, and because she's a contractor, he's probably not even going to pay her." Conway, who has become subtly critical of her boss, quoted Clinton in a tweet and wrote, "A shout out from @HillaryClinton at #AlSmithDinner."
As Clinton finished speaking, she received a standing ovation from many in the crowd. Trump clapped, then briefly stood, then sat down again, as if unsure what to do. Lip-readers caught him telling her that she did a good job.
As the dinner ended, Trump shook hands with some of the others on the stage, while a line of people wanting to talk with Clinton grew. After a few minutes, Trump and his wife made their way toward the exit.
Before ducking out, Trump flashed the crowd a thumbs up.
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The Washington Post's Abby Phillip in Cleveland contributed to this report.