Albert Osborn

Born: Albert Sherman Osborn 1858

Died: 1946 (aged 87–88)

Known pioneer and author in the field of Questioned Document Examination.

In North America, Albert Sherman Osborn is regarded as the father of the science of questioned document examination.

Questioned Documents, his primary work, was first published in 1910 and then significantly updated in a second edition in 1929. Other works, such as The Problem of Proof (1922), The Mind of the Juror (1937), and Questioned Document Problems (1944), were appreciated by the legal profession as well as public and private laboratories dealing with questioned documents.

On September 2, 1942, Osborn established the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE). In 1913, Osborn started inviting a few select practitioners to informal educational gatherings at his house, which eventually led to the founding of the ASQDE. He was the first president of the society and was deeply connected with the discipline and Society until his death four years later.

During his career, Osborn was involved in several high-profile cases, including the murder of Mary Phagan and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, the latter of which was depicted in the film J. Edgar (2011), in which Osborn is played by actor Denis O’Hare.

Albert Sherman Osborn was the first American to make a name for himself in the field of questioned document examination and forgery analysis. In 1910, he published Questioned Documents, which is still in print and considered a foundational publication in the field of questioned document interpretation. Another well-known forensics tome, The Mind of the Juror as Judge of the Facts, or, The Laymen’s View of the Law, was published in 1937, near the end of his career (and not long before his death). For more than 50 years, Osborn was at the forefront of questioned document analysis, and he was well-known as an expert witness and academic in the court system.

He was able to make great progress with the court system’s recognition of expert testimony about falsified papers as lawful evidence in criminal trials due to the thoroughness and professionalism of his work. In 1942, he formed the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, which has continued to grow and expand in terms of research, knowledge, and subject matter specialists until this day.

Albert Osborn was the first person in the United States to use the scientific approach to examine questioned documents. Questioned Documents and The Problem of Proof, both published in 1910 and 1922, were widely praised by public and private criminal justice and law enforcement agencies, the legal professions, and the general public. Albert Osborn began organizing yearly informal meetings in 1913 to discuss ideas and research information among professionals in the disciplines of forged documents and questioned document analysis, even though the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners was formed in 1942.

The basic assumption of questioned document analysis is to look at and compare data on written or electronic evidence. It has expanded from handwriting analysis and signature comparisons to include: handwriting, typewriting, hand printing, electronic and other printing methods; alterations; erasures; obliterations; studies of impressions on paper or other printing media; physical features of printing media (watermarks, seals, fiber contents, etc.); studies of the materials used to make the documents, such as inks, ribbons, cartridges, and papers; and even shoeprint and vehicle tread impression. Edges, perforations, and tears in papers, stamps, seals, and other physical evidence are also examined and compared by questioned document examiners.

Albert Osborn was a well-known expert in the disciplines of document forgery and document analysis (he claimed that no two people could create the same handwriting characteristics). His forensic procedures and scientific results are still being researched, and his expertise is still being used in modern courts of justice. The first President of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners was Albert Sherman Osborn.

Mr. Osborn was the second of six children born in 1858 on a farm in Grass Lake, Michigan. He worked on the farm and went to the local country school in Grass Lake. He didn’t want to live on a farm, so he went to Lansing State College, where he grew interested in the art of handwriting. He believed that with sufficient training and effort, he might become a handwriting teacher.

He received a letter from the Rochester Business Institute in the summer of 1882, offering him a position as a handwriting instructor. Mr. Osborn’s interests in handwriting identification, typewriting, paper, ink, and the myriad difficulties that emerge surrounding contested documents gave rise to his early beginnings as a handwriting teacher.

Attorneys used to contact a local penmanship teacher for comments on the genuineness or falsification of a signature in the early days. Lawyers began sending questioned document difficulties to Mr. Osborn as soon as he established himself as a highly qualified teacher. By 1920, his business had grown to the position where he needed to relocate from Rochester to New York City, where he opened an office and began focusing entirely on questioned document work.

Great institutions and big scientific breakthroughs are virtually often the results of one person’s lengthened shadow. Albert Sherman Osborn was a brilliant thinker, a man of penetrating vision and indomitable courage, of strict honesty and unremitting zeal. He was in charge of placing questioned document work on a scientific foundation more than any other document examiner before him. This influence was so widespread that the term “Osborn” has become legendary among handwriting experts, lawyers, judges, investigators, and others who deal with disputed document issues all around the world.

Mr. Osborn has hosted educational discussions at his home for many years, bringing together many of North America’s top document examiners. Each participant invited to these gatherings had a genuine desire to learn new things and was required to submit a paper on a previously assigned topic at the meeting. These document examiners found this approach to be beneficial. Mr. Osborn and others decided their group should establish a formal organization as a result. The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners was created in 1942, and Mr. Osborn served as its first president for four years.

On September 2, 1942, the ASQDE was formally created. Albert S. Osborn was the driving force behind the organization and served as its first president. Mr. Osborn is widely regarded as the father of scientific document evaluation in the United States. His books Questioned Documents, first published in 1910, and The Problem of Proof, first published in 1922, was extensively praised by the legal profession and public and private organizations involved with improving justice in document-related cases.

Mr. Osborn began a program for the exchange of ideas and research information in 1913 when he invited Mr. Elbridge Stein of Pittsburgh to discuss various topics connected to questioned document examination with him. Mr. Stein was a brilliant student who jumped at the chance to meet Mr. Osborn. J. Fordyce Wood of Chicago, J. Frank Shearman of Wichita, and John J. Lomax of Montreal were added to the list during the next year or two. These individuals were also eager to learn from Mr. Osborn while sitting at the fountainhead. They were asked to participate fully in the conversations from the beginning.

One of the first attendees at the meetings was Mr. John F. Tyrrell of Milwaukee, an early participant of Mr. Osborn’s. On his return from foreign service with the United States armed forces during World War I, Albert D. Osborn, the son of Albert S. Osborn, was invited to attend in 1919. Herbert J. Walter of Winnipeg, Canada, was invited in 1926, and Edwin H. Fearon of Pittsburgh, Harry E. Cassidy of Richmond, and Scott E. Leslie of Cleveland were added to the group within the next two years.

Mr. Osborn continued to be active and influential until he died in 1946. He read a wide variety of books, both literary and scientific, regularly. He pushed learning to new heights with his keen analysis and penetrative knowledge of the author’s concepts, along with his retentive memory. He was an educated man in every sense of the word, and he could speak intelligently on a wide range of topics. His works Questioned Documents, The Problem of Proof, The Juror’s Mind, and Questioned Document Problems master and codify the information needed to recognize handwriting and typescript styles, as well as dating papers, inks, and writing instruments. Mr. Osborn’s son, Albert D. Osborn, followed him into the practice of questioned document examination, as did his grandsons, Paul A. Osborn and Russell Osborn.

Today, his great-grandson, John P. Osborn, is Vice President of the ASQDE, carrying on his great grandfather’s tradition.

The Albert S. Osborn Award of Excellence was established to honor people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty as Society members.

The following are the award criteria:

  • The recipient must be a living member in good standing of the ASQDE at the time of the nomination and maybe a Regular, Associate, Corresponding, Life Member, or Corresponding Life Member.
  • The recipient must have worked in the field of questioned document examination for at least 25 years and been a member of the ASQDE for at least 20 years.
  • Only those who have achieved exceptional distinction in terms of:
  • Cumulative activities, such as professional research or literary accomplishments that advance the field of questioned document examination.
  • Outstanding service to the ASQDE over a long period, such service resulting in generally-recognized and beneficial improvements in the Society, will be considered for the award.
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