Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Failed forensics on "The History Detectives"

The History Detectives may turn out to be the Inspector Clouseaus of typewriter sleuthing.

On last night’s episode of “The History Detectives,” one of their gumshoes set out to find out whether a typewriter, a Corona #3 to be exact, had in fact belonged to famed World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle just prior to his being killed by a Japanese sniper on an island near Okinawa.

A “writing forensics” expert’s compared typed impressions of a date in a letter written by Pyle just before he died, with those on the same date as typed on the Corona said to be his last typewriter. The typewriter is owned by Eric Warlick of Portland, whose grandfather won it in a poker game from a man who claimed to have been with Pyle when he died.

Based on the comparison, the expert concluded that the typewriter was not the one used to write Pyle’s letter.

The evidence: the number “1” looked different in the two dates.

Closed case.

Not so fast, say several members of the Portable Typewriter Forum, to which I happen to belong.

While the Corona has a number “1,” it is rather awkward to use. You have to depress a figure key, similar to the “CAP” key below it. With the “FIG” key depressed, the typist hits what is normally the “Q,” to get a “1.”

To avoid that typing anomaly, many typists simply used the lower case letter “L.” Indeed, many early typewriters had no number “1” so the typists were accustomed to using the lower case “L” as a substitute for the number "1."

That may be what Pyle did on his Corona, out of habit or convenience or both. But when the "history detective" typed the date on the typewriter, he used the FIG key to get the number “1,” and the forensics expert mistakenly concluded that Pyle’s letter was written on a different typewriter.

The fact is that the jury is still out.

I happen to have a Corona #3 (see photos) and indeed the number “1” and the lower case “L” are strikingly (no pun intended) different (see below). But both dates were written on the SAME typewriter.

And yes, if I had used several brands of typewriter, as Pyle did, I’d find shifting with the FIG key a pain and simply resort to using the “L” as a "1." (Note, in the photo above, the “FIG” keys – one on each side – and the “Q/1” key.)

Even if the episode on Pyle’s typewriter got viewers to a questionable “destination,” the trip was fun, including a stop at Ace Typewriter in North Portland where Matt McCormack had the chance to show off his typewriter chops.

The program will be rebroadcast tomorrow, Wednesday, July 18, at 11 p.m. on Channel 10.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger ALT said...

You used the date April 1, 1945. Is that the date that was compared? If so, did the "l" in April match the number "l"?

10:34 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

Indeed it did.

5:21 AM  
Blogger chezchas said...

Thanks for your excellent post. I just watched the History Detectives program and found it interesting so I was googling around to find out more and I came across your article. Then I went back and looked at the samples that Jacqueline, the alleged "document expert" showed to the segment host, Wes Cowan.

As posters in the Portable Typewriter Forum have suggested, it's abundantly clear that in Ernie Pyle's letter, he used an "l" (el) in place of a "1" (one) when typing the "l945." The reason it's clear is that the full date in the sample is April 8, l945, and the "l" (el) at the end of "April" exactly matches the "l" (el substituted for a one) in the year "l945." So it is not valid to compare this "l" (el) with the first digit of "1945" in the recently typed sample. When that sample was typed, it's obvious that a "1" (one) was used when typing "1945" rather than an "l" (el). This is even evident when using computer fonts. Compare

April 8, l945


April 8, 1945

(To simulate typewriter fonts, you'll need to copy and paste the above dates into a word processing document and change the font to Courier.)

Ironically, as suggested by members of the Portable Typewriter Forum, Jacqueline may have reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. Although I'm not a "document expert" like Jacqueline, it's evident to me that the samples are from different typewriters. The most telltale sign to me is that the line that forms the top of the "5" on the Pyle sample has a distinct upward curve. While the same line in the recently typed sample is perfectly straight.

I agree with you that just because the samples were typed on different typewriters is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the typewriter in question was not owned by Pyle. Your "spare typewriter" theory is a good one. Here's another theory: When back at camp Pyle may have used a different typewriter than the one he used out in the field. Perhaps while in camp he preferred a more substantial desk model that would be easier to type on than the little portable Corona #3 he carried in the field. A real document expert (don't ask Jacqueline) might be able to determine what model of typewriter the Pyle letter is typed on (based on the font used) -- if it's a desk model, then that would lend support to the theory that Pyle was using multiple typewriters during the last weeks of his life. Certainly he would not be dragging a desk model into the heat of battle.

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm SO GLAD to find someone else questioning the findings of the History Detectives regarding the possible Pyle typewriter. I recall my father and grandmother both habitually substituting the "el" key for a "one" key. The night the episode first aired, I wrote the History Detectives (Wes particularly) and questioned the findings, but I have not recieved a reply. Has History Detectives commented on this?
Kelley H.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Rick Seifert said...

So far no word from the Detectives. One of The Red's readers, Steve Brannon, wrote Wes but hasn't heard back from him.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Steve Brannnon said...

Kelley H.,
I also wrote Wes Cowan regarding the Ernie Pyle typewriter story. I didn't hear back directly, but I've just checked the History Detectives website : http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/about/wes_journal.html

See the Postscript.

ERNIE PYLE'S TYPEWRITER, Albuquerque, NM Bloomington, IN and Portland, OR

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but when the producers for History Detectives told me I was going to do an investigation on Ernie Pyle, I was ecstatic. You see, I had confused Ernie Pyle with the great World War II cartoonist, Bill Mauldin. I remembered reading books of Mauldin's collected strips of "Willie and Joe", two regular G.I.'s whose inked adventures were known by every REAL soldier during the War. I really didn't know much about Ernie Pyle, other than he was "another" War correspondent. How wrong I was.

As the investigation unfolded, I quickly learned that Pyle, like Mauldin, was loved by American troops, in large part because he spoke their language. Pyle genuinely empathized with the common G.I. – and had an uncommon ability to connect with their fears, longings and homesickness, their impatience with the Army brass, and the horror of death. Through his columns in Stars and Stripes, Pyle touched the lives of thousands of U.S. troops in a way that few of us can conceive of today. I was astonished to learn that at the time of his death he was nearly as popular as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unbelievable.

Postscript: I also wanted to thank viewers for pointing out a slip-up in our story. Our expert, Jacqueline Joseph compared the way the number 1 looked when typed by our typewriter to a document Ernie Pyle typed with the date 1945. But as several viewers noticed, many people in those days used the lowercase “l” instead of the number 1 because it was easier to reach. What we showed you was just the first part of quite a detailed examination where we compared many features throughout the documents. The other numbers in the 1945 were also looked at, and we noticed other significant differences such as the letter sizes, and the spaces between letters, words and lines of type. So, thank you to our eagle-eyed viewers and rest assured that this did not affect the outcome of our investigation!

Until next time,


More about this story

Posted on 16 July 2007 By Wes Cowan

5:17 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home