“Such evanescent shadows of probability,” said Benjamin Peirce, “cannot belong to actual life.” Though best known as an astronomer, he was speaking as a mathematician, in a courtroom on a high summer day in 1867 on a matter of three words on which hung the fate of a great fortune. The words – “Sylvia Ann Howland” – were among the most closely examined examples of handwriting in history, the Zapruder film of signatures. Photographically enlarged and studied under microscopes, compared and contrasted, the context of their writing reproduced with an ailing hand and an inkwell fortified with vinegar, they enjoyed the attention not merely of handwriting experts but of bankers, geologists, pioneering photographers, engravers, cashiers, and mathematicians. Sylvia Howland had willed some of her estate in trust to her niece, Hetty Robinson; Robinson produced a second, secret will awarding her the whole thing. The secret will was in Robinson’s handwriting: she had often taken dictation from her elderly and infirm aunt. Only the signatures on the page were Howland’s. Or not. On this millions rested.
The concern wasn’t that the signatures on the wills were too different, though, but that they were too perfectly similar. They were identical, stroke by stroke, and even their placement and distance from the margins on their respective pages was the same. This didn’t look like authorship, but like tracing.
Dozens of examples of Howland’s signature showed much more variation, but those were over time: how much does your signature vary from day to day, hour to hour, document to document? Bankers and cashiers – people with a professional background in approving signatures – testified to both consistency and inconsistency. A hundred and ten of President John Quincy Adams’s canceled checks were examined, transferred to transparent paper so they could be superimposed on one another. Teachers of handwriting testified to either the possibility or the impossibility of a healthy person (Robinson) replicating the handwriting of an ailing person (Howland). Louis Agassiz – glaciologist, paleontologist, for whom glaciers were valleys in process – used the cutting edge of microscope technology to look for traces of pencil lead, providing testimony that sounded like an explorer traversing an alien landscape by balloon: he found deltas of ink distributed like mud on a silting riverbed, and none of the geological disturbances of scrambled strata that would be left by a rubber eraser.
Peirce (pronounced like “purse”) and his son, the philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce, tried a very different approach: the first courtroom appearance of statistical analysis and probability. Father and son identified thirty downstrokes characterizing Howland’s signature and went through the dozens of examples, cataloging the variations, before evolving a statistical model of the likelihood of the signatures on the contested page precisely corresponding. It was to deliver the results of these calculations that Peirce senior took the stand on that June day to describe a number – the chance of the signatures matching as well as they did – as those “evanescent shadows of probability.”
Were the signatures perfectly fine, or were they too perfect? How distinguish a signature from a picture of a signature? In a study of the Howland Will case from the American Law Review in 1890, the question of the admissibility of the photographic evidence – all those enlargements and retouched exposures of signatures – was raised and dismissed with one of the most beautiful phrases in legal literature: “It is hearsay of the sun.” How to distinguish what you know from what the technology knows for you?
Charles Sanders Peirce would dwell on versions of this question for much of the rest of his life. Peirce began in symbolic logic – Benjamin kept him up late at night, as a child, playing logic games between astronomical observations – but he became increasingly preoccupied with how the symbols of logical operations mean what they mean: “semeiotics,” he spelled it, a study of signs and a theory of knowledge. He was one of those souls who fascinate for their contradictions: a master logician whose life was riven by perverse misdirection and ruinous impulses – driven, paranoid, prone to insomnia and fits of inert despair, addicted to risks and luxury (“wears beautiful clothes, &c,” noted Henry James of meeting him in London) and to ether, opium tinctures, alcohol, morphine and cocaine. He had an amazing gift for making lifelong enemies with sudden, self-destructive acts, and he wrote drafts on “the art of reasoning” and gave correspondence courses in becoming a logical person.
In the 1880s Peirce’s student and friend, the art historian Allan Marquand, built a mechanical device for automatically solving a set of problems in formal logic. (He housed it in a cedar case made from a post at Princeton’s oldest homestead.) Peirce made a recommendation for the next machine: “I think electricity would be the best thing to rely on.” As Marquand diagramed the first electric circuits for logical operations – for computation – Peirce published a paper on the prospects: “Precisely how much of the business of thinking a machine could possibly be made to perform, and what part of it must be left for the living mind, is a question not without conceivable practical importance; the study of it can at any rate not fail to throw needed light on the nature of the reasoning process.” Hearsay of the machine, about the person.
In the end, the Howland Will case was dismissed. Hetty Robinson and the executors settled out of court. By then she had already married and become Hetty Green, a name more recognizable: the “Witch of Wall Street,” the legendarily shrewd and canny investor who was to become the country’s wealthiest woman. Charles Peirce and Juliette Froissy, his second wife, spent their later years slowly freezing in a decaying house in the Pennsylvania countryside, stealing food, cadging loans, and trying to sell home-made cider to survive. (Peirce spent a stretch as a fugitive in New York State for unpaid debts.) His last letter, on January 7 1914, is to Mary Pinchot, thanking her for the gift of a Christmas basket of food.
In “Right Start,” an unfinished outtake from the Talking Heads, you can hear both what it became – it’s an early sketch of “Once in a Lifetime” – and another song it could have been: bigger, with a loose-limbed, loping cadence, steady rolling movement towards a horizon that’s mostly open sky.
A list of unused highways in Washington, because
The devoted love of the Vatican’s Latinist
How to live in your boat through a Maine winter: shrink wrap and kerosene
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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