Forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to James Johnson, Engraver, Lawn Market, Edinburgh, by Alexander Howland 'Antique' Smith (fl.1888-1892)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Letter refers to ill-health, and to mis-spellings in 'Hyslop's bill'. It is address to Mr. Jas. Johnson, Engraver, Music Shop, Lawn Market, Edinburgh.

The collection also includes a cover, noted: 'Letter of the poet Burns received from Mr. James Stewart Merchant Burrowstounness January 1851'.

Administrative / Biographical History

The letter is said to be a forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Edinburgh engraver James Johnson by forger Alexander Howland 'Antique' Smith. Smith was responsible for forgeries of letters not only by Robert Burns but by Sir Walter Scott and Mary Stuart and many prominent historical figures. He had earned the nickname ‘Antique’ Smith from his interest in old documents and ephemera. Smith appeared in the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, on 26 June 1893 charged with selling and pawning spurious manuscripts as genuine, obtaining money by pretending that certain documents were genuine and not what they purported to be, and by offering false stories as to the origin of documents and manuscripts when knowing them to be false. The circulation of forgeries came to light the previous November in an article in the  Edinburgh Evening Dispatch. Facsimiles of the forgers notes had been included in the article and a reader recognised the handwriting as that of a copying clerk working in various Edinburgh law offices - the clerk was 'Antique' Smith.

Smith's explanation was that while in employment with the firm of Thomas Henry Ferrier WS as chief clerk he had been asked to get rid of a huge quantity of old documents that had accumulated in the cellars of the law office. On examining these he had found that many of the documents were of value and so he had begun selling them to booksellers, auction rooms and pawnbrokers. When the original stock ran out he had then provided fakes to replace them, and he claimed that he was able to supply any type of document required.

Smith - the one and only mass-producer of literary forgeries in Scottish history - was found guilty on all charges but leniency was recommended. He was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment.

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Acquisition Information

Acquired from Dr. William Zachs, December 1996, Accession No: E96.65

Note

The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) ‘Antique Smith’ the Affable Forger. Full-text [online]. http://textualities.net/david-fergus/antique-smith-the-affable-forger/  [Accessed 17 March 2009].

Archivist's Note

Compiled by Graeme D. Eddie, Edinburgh University Library,

Related Material

Within Special Collections, Edinburgh University Library, in The Laing Collection is an original copy of the letter, at shelfmark La.II.210/4