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Albert Osborn, A Biography

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Albert S. Osborn (1858 - 1946) is a pioneer in forensic science that was involved and developed all of his time to the study of evidence in questioned documents. Question documents involves with handwriting. So, the job of the experts is to find out how, when, and by whom certain documents were prepared. They also search and involve with dating the documents, ink identification, copy, and forgery - copying someone's signature. Albert Osborn has started to devote his life into the field of question document around 1910. Albert S. Osborn is the first generation of Osborn family practice that has been qualified as an expert in courts. He has testified on the subject of original documents in both civil and criminal cases for the United States Government and many states of law enforcement agencies. Such states as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York are states that often used Osborn as an expert on the subject of disputed documents. One of the famous cases was the Lindbergh kidnapping trial or also known as State of New Jersey v. Hauptmann (O'Brien & Sullivan, p. 186). This case took place in 1935 and both Albert S. Osborn and his son, Albert D. Osborn, testified in the case on behalf of the prosecution. Moreover, many scientists and experts consider Albert S. Osborn the father of examination of disputed documents in the United States. In 1910, he wrote and published his first significant book, Questioned Documents. Furthermore, in 1922 he authored another important text, The Problem of Proof. These two famous books are still considered the main references for document examiners (Saferstein, p.5). In 1913, Osborn have had an idea of creation of an unofficial program for the interchange of concepts and research information where examiners will discuss different questions relating to the subject of field. First, Osborn invites Mr. Stein and later on, many other specialists were added to the program. These examiners learn from Mr. Osborn a large amount of information. They have learned that in order to uncover successfully all efforts, the examiners of the documents must obtain certain techniques. "Some of the techniques are to know to utilize the techniques of microscopy, photography, and even such analytical methods as chromatography. Alterations of documents through overwriting, erasures, or the more obvious crossing out of words must be recognized and characterized by the examiner as efforts intended to alter or obscure the original meaning of a document" (O'Brien & Sullivan, p. 172). Moreover, specialists are applying their knowledge that they gathered through years of training and experience to identify the authors of writings. Furthermore, the meetings are educational and annual attendance and participation in the program were requirements for continuing invitation. If a member is showing the lack of interest to participate in a program, that member will lose its membership in the organization. An examiner will know if he or she lost their membership. They will know it because they will not receive an invitation. In 1942, members of the organization formally structured the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) with Albert S. Osborn as president.

Many people do not realize the full scope of the examination work. they think it is limited to the identification of handwriting. In reality, a considerable percentage of document problems involve questions other than the identification of handwriting. The ASQDE organization has case files of any imaginable document problem. For example, members of the club are always willing to talk about document problems including the identification of common signature and handwriting. They can discuss typewriter, printer, photocopy, alteration, addition, and obliteration problems as well.

Albert Osborn introduces eight scientific principles to experts in his book, Questioned Documents:

  1. The most identifying characteristics are those, which are most divergent from the regular system or national average.
  2. Repeated characteristics, which are inconspicuous, should be sought first and given the most weight.
  3. Regular or national system similarities are not alone sufficient to base judgments.
  4. It is the combination of particulars, common and uncommon, that identifies.
  5. It is impossible to discover how all-strange and peculiar characteristics came to be developed.
  6. People do wholly unaccountable things in their speech, gestures, and writing.
  7. An individual characteristic may be the survival of an error overlooked by a teacher.
  8. Many characteristics are outgrowth or copies of an at one time admired design.

These eight basic principles grounded in handwriting comparison as evidence of individual characteristics (O'Hara & Osterburg, p. 483).

Children learn to write by copying a fashionable at the time style of writing that is taught to them by their teachers. This style of writing is known as national system. When the child gets older, his/her act of writing begins to pick up habitual shapes and patterns. These habitual shapes and patterns of the child are distinguishable from the habitual shapes and patterns of other people. The habitual shapes and patterns are most evident with capital letters and numerals in the child's style of writing. Handwriting of as person has individual characteristics; therefore, two different people cannot have identical unconscious handwriting. It is unlikely for two different individual to have the exact same unconscious handwriting because of the physical, mental, and mechanical factors. As a result, it is essential that documents of known origin be obtained under condition as similar as possible to the conditions present at the time the questioned documents were created.

Albert D. Osborn also gets involved with questioning documents. Albert D. Osborn also starts to participate in the meeting ASQDE in 1919. He has learned a lot of information from his father and other specialists. He also has testified as his father in courts in this unique field of identification. One of the famous cases that the testified in is the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Later on, he passes on his knowledge to his son, Paul A. Osborn, or the third generation of this family practice. He also took a course of study in the organization that his grandfather formally established in 1942. His biggest achievement is that he served as the President of the ASQDE organization from 1990 to 1992. He is presently an active member of his grandfather's organization. In 1982, John Paul Osborn, Paul A. Osborn's son joined the practice, continuing the work started by his great grandfather. He becomes a forensic document examines as well. Moreover, he is a member of the ASQDE organization. One of the major achievements in his life is that he holds a bachelor's degree from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. It shows the dynasty of Osborn's family. They invest a lot of their time and knowledge in questioning documents.


O'Brien, K. & Sullivan, R. (1972. Criminalistics: Theory and Practice. Boston: Holbrook Press, Inc.

O'Hara, C. & Osterburg, J. (1972). Introduction to Criminalistics: The Application of the Physical Science to the Detection of Crime. Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press.

Saferstein, R. (1998). Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc

Ilya Rubinov

Forensic Science 108


July 15, 2003

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