Thomas J. Wise and His Forgeries
by JOHN CARTER
TEN years ago a group of over fifty rare nineteenth-century “first editions” were exposed as frauds. A verdict of forgery against a person or persons unknown was secured, with almost no dissentients, from the reviewers, the experts, the book-collecting world, and such laymen as were interested. The two comparatively junior “attorneys” who presented this case to the public (both of them members of the London rare-book trade) arraigned as an accessory after the fact the eminent and internationally respected book collector and bibliographer, Thomas J. Wise, who was then still alive (he died in 1937).
Mr. Graham Pollard and I did not, however, accuse Wise of being a witting accessory; nor did we suggest in print that he might actually have been himself the forger, in spite of our private conviction that he was. But during the succeeding decade others have taken a hand in the further investigation of this fascinating, and in its day sensational, case; and since some new evidence bearing on the responsibility for the forgeries is now being put before the public by Miss Fannie Ratchford in her new book, The Letters of Thomas J. Wise to John Henry Wrenn (Knopf), it may be opportune not only to comment on that evidence but to supply a few footnotes to the original indictment.
Before proceeding to consider the new evidence and reconsider the old, it will be well to recall briefly the contents and conclusions of An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (Scribner), as our treatise was with calculated mildness entitled.
This book was a fully documented exposure of a group of more than fifty “first editions” of such eminent authors as Wordsworth, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, the Brownings, Swinburne, George Eliot, William Morris, R. L. Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling. These items were mostly of the “privately printed” or the “pre-first” pamphlet type. They appeared in all the standard bibliographies and had been generally accepted for upwards of thirty years. Yet, in the light of the evidence assembled, more than thirty of them were shown to be forgeries and the status of the remainder to be open to considerable suspicion. As a result of our Enquiry, the pamphlets have all been reclassified in the British Museum Catalogue, whose editors are not prone to sudden enthusiasms.
What put Wise head and shoulders above any other recorded practitioner in fraudulent printing was his early realization (after a few experiments) that imitations of books are always discovered: that you must invent an edition if you are to avoid the ultimately fatal comparison with a genuine original. Wise was not a forger in the literary sense, like Chatterton or Ireland or the several fabricators of the lost books of Livy. His formula, as simple as it was effective, consisted in taking some suitable piece from a published volume, printing it in pamphlet form with an earlier date, and thus creating a first edition for the collectors’ market.
So long as he was careful to print from the logical text; if the format and imprint were appropriate; if the hypothetical circumstances of publication and the position in its author’s bibliography were plausible; and if he could then get his product onto the right shelves and into the right reference books, it was possible, as Wise proved in spite of mistakes, to get away with murder. His wide-ranging operations were only finally unmasked by the application to each pamphlet of such technical tests of its type design and paper content as were hardly to be anticipated in the 1890’s, the decade of his main activity as a forger.
In 1934 we could not prove that Wise, who promoted, established, and marketed the forgeries, was also their actual creator. It was for this reason, and not from fear of the libel laws, as has been mistakenly or disparagingly suggested, that we did not accuse him of full responsibility. But any candidate for the honor had to pass a series of tests: —
1. The forger must have had a large and regular account, and preferably an account of a special character (for example, type-facsimile reprints), at Clay’s, who had been proved to have printed the forgeries and had admitted it. Wise had such an account, as did no one else connected with the forgeries.
2. Proof sheets, being rather special items, usually have a traceable origin. If they could be completely and correctly traced in the case of one or more of the forgeries, they must lead back to the forger. Proof sheets of several in fact were located and they all derived from Wise. He had supplied them, of course, with bogus pedigrees when selling them.
3. The forger must originally have possessed all the copies of all the forgeries. Therefore, while possession of a single copy of one of them has no significance, and possession of a dozen very little, the greater the number and (more importantly) the greater the number of each that are found together, the nearer we are to their original source.
Possession of a long run of titles might indicate nothing more than the owner’s keenness on nineteenth-century first editions — there were twentyfour in the Lapham sale in New York in 1908 and Mr. John H. Wrenn owned a complete set; the British Museum possesses twenty-eight, and the Widener Library twenty-five or more. But the only people who had the forgeries in wholesale quantities were Herbert Gorfin and Thomas J. Wise. Gorfin was first Wise’s office boy and then Wise’s agent in his extensive rare-book dealing, before setting up in business for himself; and he had documentary evidence of the purchase of his holdings from Wise.
So quite apart from the cumulative evidence of Wise’s vigorous promotion and, when necessary, defense of the forgeries (others helped to promote them), and of his wholesale dealing in them (others had them in duplicate and sold them, including dealers of the highest repute), there seemed to us no reasonable doubt that the man who passed those three tests must be the forger. That man was Wise; and his reactions to the exposure, both as first laid before him privately by us, eight months before our book came out, and after its publication, only confirmed our suspicions.
There were many, however, who found it impossible to accept even that breath of suspicion which undoubtedly lingers round the scrupulous phrases of the Enquiry. They could not believe that a man of Wise’s prestige, eminence, academic honors, and (by that time) affluent circumstances would have done such a thing. They had forgotten, or never knew, that Wise, the substantial merchant, had been a rare-book dealer on the side all his life; that at the time he was laying the foundations of his splendid and expensive library he was earning only £500 a year (with a wife to support) and must have needed money badly; and finally (for I think this contributed to his motive) that aspiring bibliographers thrive on the announcement of new discoveries, of which the forgeries provided the most promising aspirant of his day with about half a dozen a year for a decade.
Wise discontinued production, as far as we know, about the turn of the century. He went out of wholesaling between 1909 and 1912, when he jobbed off to Gorfin, in a series of transactions, the main bulk of his stock. One reason for this move may well have been the decline in bibliophilic popularity of a number of the authors represented in the collection; and indeed the prices at which he cleared his shelves stamp this as a “remaindering” operation.
But even in the 1920’s, a West End dealer once told me, you could always get a copy of the bogus “Reading” edition of Mrs. Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese from Wise’s stock, by applying through Gorfin. And if Wise discovered that a friend had been taken in by the forgery of his forgery of Swinburne’s Dead Love (1864), which always made him furious, he would give him (or sell him) a copy of the “genuine article.” The perpetrator of this ironic trick, who produced an imitation of Wise’s bogus original, has never been publicly identified.
GRAHAM POLLARD and I placed the full evidence for our exposure before Wise in October, 1933, in order to give him the opportunity to make a statement. He preferred to prevaricate to us while making every effort behind the scenes to mend his fences for the forthcoming challenge. Mutual friends of Wise and our publishers warned them, in the friendliest but weightiest way, against putting any confidence in these “wild young men.” (Wise was describing us in private correspondence as “sewer rats.”) Mr. A. Edward Newton wrote me of the “horrible shock to those of us who are and for years have been playing this book collecting game” which he anticipated from “this horrible scandal,” in which “one of my oldest friends seems to be implicated.” “The man,” Mr. Newton continued, “is almost a National figure.” And so on.
More significantly, Wise bethought him of Gorfin, with whom he had been out of touch for a decade or more, and invited him to tea. He did not know that Gorfin had “come clean” to us, and he broke the news, as he supposed, that there was “some talk going on about some wrong things” among the pamphlets of which he had sold Gorfin so large a number twenty years before. He suggested that it would be best for all concerned if he took back whatever Gorfin had left “at their market value,” which he estimated at a total of £25. Gorfin did not dare tell Wise that we had already taken down his evidence, but he had enough sense to say he would think over Wise’s offer. He came straight to my office, and he was still sweating slightly: Wise was an extremely formidable character, and although Gorfin was free, white, and fifty-five, in that choleric presence he was again the subservient office boy. We advised him to write the truth to Wise if he did not, as he insisted, dare to tell him to his face.
He did so, and the result was electric. A series of telegrams summoned him “immediately” to 25 Heath Drive, where Wise offered to repay his whole original investment (£400, sixteen times the previous day’s offer) in the now worthless pamphlets, on one condition: that Gorfin would endorse his intended statement that they had all come from Harry Buxton Forman, editor of Shelley and Keats, and a notable book collector of Wise’s period, who died in 1917. Gorfin declined to support this story, which he then heard for the first time, and again left, promising to consider Wise’s revised offer.
We advised him to accept it, accompanying his acceptance with a specific repudiation of the Buxton Forman story, which seemed to him (and to us) to be an alibi for which Wise needed any support he could beg, borrow, or in this case buy; and we recommended that he get a lawyer to draft the letter. He did so; and he got the £400 in exchange for his stock of the pamphlets, which Wise’s lawyers, Messrs. Gedge, subsequently certified were burned in their presence. The repudiation of the Forman origin, however, availed Gorfin little, for Wise, both in interviews and letters to the press, made it his main alibi and cited Gorfin in support of it. This moved Gorfin to an indignant protest in the Times Literary Supplement (July 19, 1934).
The account which Wise had previously given Gorfin had already been retailed to us, as follows: that a certain agent had in the late 1880’s offered to Robson ‘s, antiquarian booksellers of Coventry Street, London, a large bundle of “publishers’ waste,” or “remainders,” deriving, he said, from the Edward Moxon sales (1873 and 1878) and possibly elsewhere; that Robson’s had declined the lot but had suggested that Wise, who was known as a specialist in pamphlet first editions, might give him £5 for it; and that Wise had done so, to the great profit of himself and, in a much lesser degree, of Gorfin. In short, Wise’s commission agent and the subsequent owner of the remainder stock of the forgeries decisively contradicted the origin which Wise was endeavoring to establish for them.
The Wise alibi, however, received support from another and perhaps more telling quarter. The letter in the Times Literary Supplement to which Gorfin had replied (and to which I shall return in a moment) had been at least partially supported, in respect of the alleged Forman origin, by no other than Maurice Buxton Forman, son of the impugned scholar and bibliophile, and himself a distinguished authority on Keats and the bibliographer of George Meredith. His two letters — one to Wise, quoted in full by him, and the other direct to the editor — did not exactly confirm Wise’s story that all the forgeries had derived from Forman; but they supported Wise in general and they described Forman’s “salting down” of “remainders” and “swaps” with Wise in such a way as to indicate a state of affairs that was not inconsistent with Wise’s account of the matter.
IN MAY, 1934, Wise, on the basis of our disclosure of our case to him six months earlier, had decided to anticipate publication of the Enquiry by a dogmatic letter to the Times Literary Supplement defending himself against the expected attack in respect of the Sonnets from the Portuguese, the most interesting of the forgeries (and the most lucrative, for it has brought as high as $1250 at auction). He had not understood clearly the technical tests of paper and type which we had applied to his productions, and his rebuttal was consequently rather an amateurish affair.
This and the other letter bore Wise’s signature. But they had in fact been drafted by Mr. Frederick Page, of the Oxford University Press, who had constituted himself Wise’s “counsel for the defense” and who relied for “advice” on two senior officers of that august institution. Mr. Page called on us in July, 1934, disclosed his status and his authorship of the letters to the Times, and demanded to see the affidavits which we had taken care to have Gorfin swear for those statements of his on which we had drawn for some of our evidence.
Since Mr. Page seemed genuinely to believe in Wise’s innocence, we told him enough, in addition to what we had printed, to convince him that he and his advisers were making themselves practically accessories after the fact by their assistance to Wise; and we warned him that if the defense persisted in their behind-the-scenes attempts to discredit Gorfin or continued to throw the whole responsibility for the forgeries on Forman without offering any evidence to support the alibi, we should be compelled to publish a few such damaging facts as Wise’s attempt to suborn Gorfin’s testimony.
Mr. Page took these warnings so much to heart and so little to head that he wrote Wise a letter not only abandoning his defense but conveying some threats which we did not make and were in no position to have made. He sent us a copy of this letter, and we had to point out its inaccuracy as a report of the interview; for Mr. Page had represented us as pro-Gorfin and pro-Forman, whereas we were in fact only concerned to prevent Mr. Page from assisting Wise to throw the blame, without citing any evidence, on one man who was dead and could not defend himself, and to discredit another whom we believed to be, however dubious a character in other respects, innocent of complicity in the forgeries. Mr. Page revised his report. But a copy of its inaccurate predecessor was sent (by Mr. Wise) to this country, and further copies of it were circulated by the recipient. Miss Ratchford quotes it in full in her book and draws a number of misleading conclusions from it, although she was advised in 1935 of its inaccuracy.
Wise had also prepared a full-length defense to be printed in the American Book Collector, a periodical edited by Mr. Charles Heartman. It is understood that Wise cabled instructions to suppress this “defense” as a result of Mr. Page’s representations; but he did not have, or did not exercise, any such control over Mr. Gabriel Wells, the prominent rarebook dealer in New York, who among other activities wrote a pamphlet in his defense called The Carter-Pollard Disclosures. This was considered by many to have done considerable disservice to the cause it was intended to support, and ironically enough it put one of its readers onto the track of a crucial piece of evidence against Wise, as we shall see.
Messrs. Clay’s own opinion as to the identity of the only one of their customers who was in a position to have the forgeries executed at their plant was expressed to us privately; and we did not print it since, besides being private, it was only an opinion. But Mr. Wilfred Partington, in a biographical study of Wise called Forging Ahead (New York, Putnam, 1939), printed a verbatim record of an interview between Wise and Mr. Cecil Clay, communicated to him by Mr. Clay, which included Wise’s question: “Can’t you say you had nothing to do with these things?” and Mr. Clay’s reply: “How can I, when you know we printed them for you?” An important contribution to the forgeries affair in general was made by Mr. Roland Baughman of the Huntington Library, who discovered two fresh additions to the group. Mr. Baughman found Tennyson’s Bechet (1873) to be printed in the forger’s favorite type; but, more significantly, he proved that in 1893 Wise had relapsed into the imprudence of imitating a genuine article. He faked copies of his avowed type-facsimile reprint of the recently discovered and very rare Alaric at Rome (1840, Matthew Arnold’s first publication) and sold them as originals.
MOST of these developments had taken place in 1934. In March, 1935, I was invited to the library of Mr. Carl H. Pforzheimer, one of America’s foremost book collectors, and offered the opportunity to inspect a document bearing on the origin of the forgeries, on condition that I should not publish it until its owner gave me permission. Mr. Pforzheimer explained that a reference in Mr. Gabriel Wells’s polemical pamphlet to Harry Buxton Forman’s authorship of an anonymous article entitled “The Building of the Idylls” (of Tennyson) in Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century (edited by Wise and Robertson Nicoll), which we had mistakenly attributed to Wise, had reminded him that there survived in his possession the corrected proofs of this article, with some manuscript notes attached. These had been sold with the Forman Library. The manuscript notes, to which no great attention had previously been paid, were found to consist of several letters from Forman, one of the principal contributors to Literary Anecdotes, to its editor, Wise. Wise had commented interlinearly on a number of points in these letters and sent them back — hence their presence among Forman’s effects, where they had fortunately escaped the notice of Wise and the executors when the library was sold to America.
It was my view, expressed then and on numerous subsequent occasions, that these documents ought to be published, for they threw a very interesting light on the relationship existing between Wise and Forman at a time when, as one among them proved, that relationship was particularly important to the elucidation of the chief unsolved problem in the forgeries investigation — namely, their authorship. Mr. Pforzheimer, for reasons which I have never understood, persisted year after year in declining either to publish them himself or to allow anyone else to do so.
Later, Miss Ratchford was permitted to inspect the documents; but she also was unable to get leave to cite them. As this article goes to press, Mr. Pforzheimer is understood to be in process of printing them in the form of a brochure, and it is much to be hoped that they may now, after being withheld for ten years, be made available to scholars and students in their entirety.
As I must consider myself bound by the letter of my original undertaking, I cannot divulge the contents of these documents. But it will sufficiently indicate the interest of one of them to say that it convicts Wise in his own handwriting of the responsibility for one of the forgeries and includes Forman in the responsibility. Since the Enquiry established the homogeneity of the whole group, confession in respect of one forgery would almost automatically extend to them all, even if the pamphlet named were not, as fortunately it is, one of those printed in the forger’s most frequently used font — the font peculiar to his printers, Messrs. Clay.
The fact of Forman’s complicity in the production of at least one of the forgeries is no longer in doubt, but the degree and nature of his complicity in the affair as a whole remain speculative. Strong views on this point have at one time and another been adumbrated by Miss Fannie Ratchford, the wellknown Brontë expert and librarian of the University of Texas Rare Book Collections. These views have now been set forth in full, with a quantity of evidence, inferential and other, to support them, in the long introduction to her book, which is subtitled “A further inquiry into the guilt of certain nineteenth century forgers.”
This substantial volume also contains 460 pages of Wise’s letters to his best customer, ranging from February 20, 1894, very early in their acquaintance, to May 13, 1911, the day of Wrenn’s death, when the two had been close friends for a dozen years. If anyone doubts the extent of Wise’s activities as a dealer in rare books, let him watch the man in action here: it is a full and a masterly performance, from which many professionals could glean a tip or two.
As Miss Ratchford points out, Wise on the whole served Wrenn shrewdly and efficiently, and many of her readers will wonder at the curious psychology of the man who could treat a customer and a friend so well 90 per cent of the time and swindle him so thoroughly the other 10 percent. But it is that other 10 per cent which is our concern here: for Wise sold Wrenn at various times copies of every one of his forgeries, duplicates of several, and proof sheets of two. And his technique of promoting these sales is both fascinating in itself and significant, because it presumably illustrates his methods with his many other customers. He raises expectations and recounts imaginary bargainings; he pulls off gratifying deals with nonexistent owners; and he often supplies plausible, but of course completely bogus, sources—Walter Harrison, “nephew of Moxon,” Edward Carpenter, Frederick Crawley (Ruskin’s old valet), Mrs. Dykes Campbell, R. H. Horne, Miss Tadema (daughter of the painter), a mysterious and almost certainly fictitious “Dr. Underwood,” and several more.
Miss Ratchford, in her Introduction, is naturally at pains to vindicate the main bulk of the Wrenn Library, since 1918 one of the prime ornaments of the library at Austin, from those suspicions which have attached to its contents since Wise, who supplied perhaps three quarters of the volumes, was exposed in 1934 as, if not actually a forger, at least a careless judge of a book’s authenticity.
Miss RATCHFORD is mainly concerned, however, with a re-examination of the question of the responsibility for the group of forgeries then exposed. She does not dispute Wise’s involvement, but she challenges what she rather sweepingly calls “Carter and Pollard’s conviction [my italics] that the whole burden and range of guilt for the forgeries was encompassed in Thomas J. Wise.” Miss Ratchford does not cite any evidence for this conviction except the inaccurate (and known to her as inaccurate) Frederick Page letter to which I have already referred and in fact we had, I think, reasonably open minds all along.
But in 1934 we lacked evidence against anyone but Wise, and even against him we lacked enough to justify an accusation. Some evidence of possible connivance we subsequently discovered ourselves in respect of Clay’s foreman, though it remains circumstantial. The Literary Anecdotes document provides evidence of complicity against Forman in addition to completing the case against Wise. But it remains for Miss Ratchford to convince her readers, as well as Messrs. Carter and Pollard, of the existence of what she calls (on page 77, before she has presented any of her evidence) “the WiseForman-Gosse workshop,” and of the complicity of Herbert Gorfin.
Miss Ratchford builds up her case against Forman with vigor. She cannot play the ace because Mr. Pforzheimer has it, and has no more allowed her to use it than anyone else; but she knows it is there, and if she can only refer to it in a sad and tantalizing footnote, that knowledge enables her to ruff and finesse elsewhere with a freedom which she may be thought to have exercised rather too enthusiastically. She does, however, make several telling points based on factors which Pollard and I insufficiently appreciated; and even if some of the clues lay in the hitherto locked files of the WiseWrenn correspondence, it must nonetheless be a legitimate satisfaction to Miss Ratehford to be able to establish (albeit with the final proof uncited) what she has long believed — that Forman was implicated.
But she has permitted herself a certain amount of special pleading in her case against him, particularly in respect of the sensibility to similarities or differences in commonplace contemporary type designs which can legitimately be postulated in the compilers of author bibliographies and the editors of volumes of poetry (such as Forman). She herself has not apparently appreciated one factor recognized in the Enquiry: that in the 1880’s and 1890’s the same specific founders’ types, in the regular 10 and 12 point text sizes, were being used in dozens of printing shops all over England. It. is hardly reasonable to accuse Forman of failing to recognize one or anot her of half a dozen such fonts when he saw it again, while she herself argues as if she attached as much guilty significance to fonts common to Clay and many other printers as to the key hybrid font which was ’peculiar to Clay.
Many a bibliographer examined the “Reading” Sonnets with care, if not with skepticism. But it took the eagle eye of Stanley Morison, the most expert living analyst of type, to perceive for the first time in 1932 the significant features in its type; and it was only by what we described as “a lucky accident” that Pollard and I in 1933 identified that type in an honestly imprinted book and so traced it to its origin. Is it reasonable, then, to take for grant ed such microscopic discrimination as Miss Ratehford finds it incredible that Forman should not have possessed?
The employment, of this sort of special pleading, needless against Forman, whose complicity is certain, cannot but affect our readiness to accept Miss Ratchford’s indictments against her other defendants, in respect of whom no such conclusive evidence as the Literary Anecdotes document exists. She applies to both Forman and Edmund Gosse (an equally distinguished littérateur and an equally keen, though much less accomplished, book collector) the argument that the inclusion, in their libraries of nineteenth-century first editions, of a substantial number of the forged pamphlets automatically implies a guilty knowledge of their character. “The Buxton Forman Library,” Miss Ratchford writes, “contained thirty-two forgeries plus eleven duplicates. . . . Again, as in Gosse’s case [Gosse had twenty], this is too large a number for so astute a bibliographer to have held innocently.” Yet that reasonably astute institution the British Museum held more than Gosse, the Huntington and University of Texas Libraries more than Forman. Were these also guilty?
ASIDE from this general, and as I think untenable, inference, Miss Ratchford’s case against Gosse rests on two arguments. First, her belief, fortified by that of “a score or more of persons accustomed to judging and identifying handwriting,” that the correction mangoes for mangos in the margin of the proof sheets of the fraudulent E. B. Browning pamphlet The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point is in Gosse’s hand.
When years ago Miss Ratchford, with the courtesy characteristic of the library at Austin, provided us with photostats of these proofs, we were after careful comparisons “unable to identify” the hand. Those photostats are in London; and on learning of Miss Ratchford’s identification, I sent a cable to Graham Pollard, asking for a further scrutiny. I transcribe his reply (purged of one or two misprints pardonable in an un-bibliographical cable operator): “Mangoes hand unascribable but more like Wise than Gosse stop letters not Gosse type.” Miss Ratehford has reproduced the relevant page in facsimile, with a selection of words from Edmund Gosse’s regular handwriting alongside it; but her readers will note that the only professional expert whose opinion was sought, (the Chief of the Identification Division of the Texas Department of Public Safety) found the specimens “insufficient and not the proper standards upon which to base an opinion.” Yet even if her readers follow Miss Ratchford in seeing a similarity (as I do not), they may think (as I do) that a single word, written in the careful but not always characteristic script normally adopted for proof corrections, in the margin of a book unconnected with Gosse by any other evidence, is an uncommonly slender thread with which to hang a man.
Miss Ratchford’s second specific charge against Gosse is that he fathered the story of the printing of Mrs. Browning’s Sonnets knowing it to be false and “deliberately propagated it for the purpose of authenticating the forged pamphlet.” She concludes that “Gosse divides the guilt with Wise, in fifty-fifty proportions.” Gosse certainly introduced the bogus “first edition” of the Sonnets to the world, in 1894; and since he did not list his copy in the 1893 catalogue of his library it is reasonable to suppose that he had only just acquired it. In the Enquiry we inclined to the idea that the anonymous informant whom Gosse quoted as his authority for the whole story of Mrs. Browning’s coy disclosure of her poems to her husband, of his reactions, and of the subsequent private printing, was Wise himself. But besides misreading some of the evidence then at our disposal, we had been unaware of certain letters written by Gosse in which, in replying to inquiries how the poems could have been printed in 1847 when letters to Browning himself show that they had not been disclosed to him till 1849, Gosse, abandoning the fictitious intermediary, had stated (letter to J. R. Burton, 1927) that he had had “the story regarding the authorship of those poems" direct from Browning himself. If we had known of this evidence, we should have realized, as perhaps we ought to have done anyway, that it was necessary to distinguish two elements in Gosse’s story, first printed in 1894, but best known in Critical Kit-Kats, 1896: first, the major part, the picturesque account of wife and husband and the love poems; secondly, the brief passage giving particulars of the alleged “Reading” edition.
The first element, except for some differences of detail, is confirmed by several other accounts deriving direct from Robert Browning, The second element, being false, must have come from some other source. We thought, and I still think, it came from Wise, with a copy of the book (at a bargain price, no doubt) to provide ocular evidence; and was incorporated by Gosse in his main story without that “most careful investigation and certain proof” to which Miss Ratchford justly thinks he was “obligated,” but which was not in fact characteristic of Gosse’s work either as biographer or critic. I think Gosse was gulled by Wise, as I think he was in the matter of Swinburne’s Dolores (see Enquiry, page 273), which Miss Ratchford, rather surprisingly, does not cite. I think that in later years, when he was cross-questioned by Lilian Whiting and J. R. Burton, he realized there was something seriously wrong with the book, and that he took the line of least resistance, brushing off his questioners with a rather high-handed statement of half-truths. Gosse defends (with perfect justice) “the story of the authorship of those poems” (my italics): he says nothing about their printing as the “Reading” Sonnets.
This must remain a question for the jury, and lack of space may have caused me to do some injustice to Miss Ratchford’s argument in respect of this particular book. Though she does not cite any evidence for his connection with any other specific forgery, yet with her reference to the “Wise-Forman-Gosse workshop” and her inferences from Gosse’s holdings of the group of forgeries and the sum they netted him when his library was sold, she lines him up against the wall as a full-dress fellow conspirator. I propose, therefore, to put in evidence two letters: one from Wise to Gosse about selling him some of the forgeries; the other from Gosse to Wise acknowledging the gift of another forgery. The first is inserted in Gosse’s copy of George Eliot’s Brother and Sister, one of the forgeries, and is dated “Mon. 19th (no month) 1896.”
MY DEAR GOSSE,
Thanks for yours. I am so glad the little books please you. You shall most certainly have the “Agatha” [by George Eliot—a forgery] as soon as I can find it. It is generally understood and I think rightly, that 25 copies of “Brother and Sister [another forgery] were printed — as there were of “Agatha” — But I have no absolutely certain and unquestionable evidence to go on as I have in the case of “Agatha.”
It may interest you to know that the copy of “Leoni” [by Ruskin—a forgery] I sent you was formerly the property of Fredk. Crawley, Mr. Ruskin’s old factotum, now living at Oxford upon a pension of £100 a year allowed him from Brantwood. I looked him up in 1889 when I was hunting all round for material for my Ruskin Bibliography. I bought from him all the relics he had — books, letters, sketches, among other things this tract. Forgive this haste.
T. J. WISE
The second letter came from the library of H. T. Butler, a friend of Wise, which was sold in 1934, and it was very kindly transcribed for me by its subsequent owner, Mr. Robert Metzdorf of Rochester, New York. It is dated from 17 Hanover Terrace, London, 27/10/09.
How generous and kind of you, my dear Wise, to give me this beautiful copy of the 1867 “Dolores” [by Swinburne—a forgery]. I am very grateful to you.
Have you ever solved the mystery of its production? I have very minutely collated it with the text of 1866, and there are three extremely trifling variations. All three are errors in 1867 where 1866 was correct. I wonder whether Hotten [the publisher of Poems and Ballads (1866), whose imprint was quite plausibly used on the title page of the forgery (1867)] had any secret object in this production? Why he did it, in fact? It would be interesting to try and work out the causes of the reprint, which I suppose, from its present rarity, was very limited. . . .
I will ask the impartial reader of these letters, which have only been preserved by accident and can hardly be supposed written “for the record,” whether they read like those which fellow conspirators would exchange about the fruits of their conspiracy. If Gosse was a partner in the “workshop,” why does he write in 1909 like a delighted amateur to a benevolent professional? Why is he treated in 1896 — the very year in which, according to Miss Ratchford, he was knowingly promoting one of the group — to a “promotion and sales” letter which is the spitting image, in tone and tactics, of a score of those printed by Miss Ratchford to illustrate Wise’s technique when selling forgeries to Wrenn?
THE remaining object of Miss Ratchford’s accusations is the late Herbert Gorfin, who has been referred to already in this article. Gorfin, who was Wise’s office boy in the essential oil business and his agent and factotum in much of his book dealing, must have known very well that Wise was up to all the tricks of the trade (and to many which the antiquarian book trade at least would indignantly spurn). He himself acted as Wise’s “front” in deals with Wrenn and many another—at Wise’s office he was “Herbert,” and when Wise was writing to Wrenn in Chicago to offer a bargain he became “Gorfin, a small bookseller of Hither Green” —where, indeed, he operated a small mail-order business from his home address.
But there is a wide gap between lending oneself to shady deals and conspiracy to forge. Pollard and I, who had the advantage of confronting Gorfin in person with the facts, cross-questioning him and putting him through his evidence on oath, concluded that he did not know the pamphlets were forgeries. He was ten years old when the earliest appeared, and twenty-one when the last that we know of was produced (1899). Miss Ratchford believes that he must have known, then or later, what they were; but beyond general inferences of probability she adduces only one piece of evidence against him.
That evidence is a receipt purporting to be signed by Walter Harrison (“Moxon’s nephew”) and accompanying a copy of the fraudulent Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur (1842) sold by Wise to Wrenn, which Miss Ratchford believes was written by Gorfin, using a sharp pen to disguise his hand. She reproduces this document in facsimile, along with other examples of undoubted Gorfin script, and I dare say most of her readers will concur in her identification. But Wise provided bogus origins for many other books he sold besides the forgeries, and Gorfin certainly knew it. So that even if the writing were agreed to be his, it would not necessarily imply a knowledge that this particular book was a forgery, or do anything to promote Gorfin from his present grade of jackal into that of fellow conspirator.
In conclusion: the Pforzheimer document will be seen, when its owner finally publishes it, to be a cardinal addition to the evidence in the forgeries affair. It is highly satisfactory that Wise left, in his own hand, even summary evidence of his guilt; and the inclusion of Forman in that short but sufficient sentence confirms some at least of the suspicions which Miss Ratchford has long held and which she has so amply expounded in her book. But if that document had been published in Wise’s lifetime, it might, conceivably, have extorted a full confession from him. And at the least it must have elicited some statement, some addition, from the best possible authority, to the story of the most ingeniously conceived, the best executed, and the most successful fraud in the history of book collecting.
Meanwhile Miss Ratchford has reopened the whole case with some new evidence and a salvo of new accusations. I am not myself convinced by all her deductions; and in the complicity of Forman there remains much uncertainty as to its degree and its extent. But even if her readers now conclude, or further discoveries should suggest, that the forgeries were the work of a ring, I shall be much surprised if Thomas J. Wise has to be dethroned from his commanding position as the master mind.