ON 7 MARCH, 1887, in the first of a number of articles, the London Times made the not-altogether astonishing allegation of links between Irish parliamentarians and agrarian crime stretching back to the Land War of 1879-82. The series, entitled Parnellism and Crime, appeared to be dying a natural death for want of substance when the Times , on page 8 of its edition of April 18th, published a facsimile of a highly incriminating letter bearing the signature Chas. S Parnell.
The text of the brief note, dated nine days after the infamous Phoenix Park murders of the newly arrived Irish chief secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and under-secretary, Thomas H. Burke, expressed the view that while the killing of Cavendish had been a regrettable accident Burke had got his just deserts for a career of actions inimical to nationalist interests. If genuine, the letter would have been a fatal blow to the political career of the man already lionised as The Uncrowned King of Ireland.
Parnell, oddly, given the furore that arose, had to be cajoled into making a belated denial that the signature was his. The note itself was clearly not in his handwriting. Privately he dismissed the signature, rather blithely, as a forgery, observing of his alleged middle initial (S for Stewart) that I did not make an ‘S like that since 1878.
Capitalising on the facsimile letter and a bizarre sequence of events, the Conservative government of Lord Salisbury set up a Special Commission in which the Times was invited, with anticipatory glee, to prove its allegation against Parnell. This was coupled with accusations of complicity in agrarian/political violence against most of the members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The newspaper was also to foot the bill for the Commission of Inquiry, an eye-poppingly neat idea which, sadly, was never applied to similar tribunals in this country.
The centerpiece of the entire affair was the cross-examination of Dublin newspaper proprietor, blackmailer and pornographer, Richard Pigott. Pigott was outed by the Times as the man who had supplied the newspaper, for a considerable sum of money, with a large cache of incriminating letters upon which elements of the Parnellism and Crime series was based. After a few hours of incisive questioning from Parnells counsel, Sir Charles Russell, a former Home Rule MP, it became clear that Pigott was a pathological liar of precious little skill. By the end of the second day it was apparent that Pigott had forged the incriminating Times letters. The witness did not turn up for a third day of flame grilling. Instead, he fled to the continent and within the week had shot himself dead in Madrid.
For more than 120 years, the infamous facsimile letter (dated May 15th, 1882) has been acknowledged as a forgery fashioned by Pigott from letters in his possession signed by Parnell. It is more than 99 per cent certain that the entire cache of documents is fictional and is the work of the hapless Pigott. But is there even a 1 per cent chance that some, or all, of the facsimile letter, might be genuine?
One of Pigotts many narratives was that while most of the letters sold to the Times were bogus, some were genuine and that he had purchased these, in good faith, from renegade Fenians in Paris. Of course, as a self-confessed forger his integrity and credibility were negligible. But, equally, his other assertion, that the entire cache was forged cannot be taken at face value either. Each of the many Pigott confessions was made with the express intention of extracting money from someone. His last word on the subject, a statement made to a Times solicitor two days before his disappearance, was one of partial responsibility only. He denied having forged the facsimile letter.
IT IS ALSO WORTH comparing the signature on the facsimile letter (shown below right, top) with a known example of Parnells handwriting, in this instance a letter sent to Captain William OShea in 1885, (shown below right, bottom). The signatures look remarkably similar. But then Pigott was a seasoned and practiced forger. A study of the 1885 signature, however, would seem to give the lie to Parnells assertion that his method of writing the letter S had changed significantly since 1878. To the, admittedly, untrained eye the 1885 uppercase S of his middle initial looks remarkably similar to that of the facsimile.
The same is true of the distinctive raised lower-case s of the ‘Chas, which letter he habitually underscored. Interestingly, there is evidence in the National Library Manuscripts collection, in the form of a letter written by Parnell in 1886, that he continued to adopt this style of signature as late as a year before the appearance of the facsimile letter. While in a letter of 1888, a year afterwards, he had indeed changed his style of handwriting and abandoned the raised, underscored, lowercase s. Was this an ex post facto justification of his first reaction to the sight of the facsimile letter?
The actual facsimile letter, which consists of one leaf of notepaper folded in half to provide four pages, is a strange piece of work. It is a mirror image of a normal letter. The text is on the right hand page while the signature is on the left. The four lines of the concluding third paragraph are squeezed into the bottom quarter of the document prompting the suspicion that this was done in order to avoid having to continue overleaf. The definite article has been omitted before the words House of Commons for what appears to be the same reason.
If the text of the note had continued onto the top of the second page, the natural assumption would be that the signature would follow immediately below. Once the text is all crammed on to page 1 the appearance of the signature on the facing page (page 4) retains plausibility.
Five lines into the note, three words are heavily crossed out. Why would a secretary, having made such an error so early in the letter, not simply have begun again on a fresh sheet? Was it because the letter had already been signed before the text was written? If this is the case is it possible that Parnell (a careless correspondent who entrusted much of his writing to others) did actually append his signature to a blank sheet of paper without checking to what use it had been subsequently put. This was something that he became almost paranoid about avoiding in later life.
So, if Pigott didnt place a genuine letter on a window pane and trace Parnells signature on to a blank page – this was the method he claimed to have employed – where did the signature come from? A possible explanation is offered in an autobiographical work written by the secret policeman Sir Robert Anderson, assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police. This theory comes with a flashing neon health warning attached. Anderson was a bitter opponent of Home Rule who had, covertly, contributed some of the articles to the original Times series. So he is hardly an impeccable source.
Anderson claimed the text of the facsimile letter was written by one Arthur OKeeffe, an employee of the Parnellite newspaper United Ireland . OKeeffe, who had strong Fenian connections, had been lifted in December, 1881 and lodged in Kilmainham jail where, according to Anderson, he became Parnells secretary. In a preface to the second edition of his book Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement , Anderson claims to have received definite confirmation that [the ‘facsimile letter] is in the handwriting of Arthur OKeeffe.
Unfortunately, we simply have to accept or reject his assurance because he doesnt elaborate. Anderson speculates that Parnells signature was obtained in advance and the letter concocted (probably without his knowledge) to appease Land League hard-liners disillusioned with Parnells adhesion to the Kilmainham Treaty – the unacknowledged compact arrived at between Parnell and the Liberal government to end agrarian violence in return for further remedial agrarian legislation.
THE PARNELL OR Times Commission sat for a year and reported, 120 years ago this month, within three months of concluding its deliberations. Irish tribunals please note. If the Times was hoping for a Murphy-like indictment of the entire Irish Parliamentary Party, it was disappointed.
Parnell was found to have been the victim of an egregious forgery and many of his political associates, to no ones great surprise, were found to be sneaking regarders when it came to the killing and maiming of land-grabbers, constables, bailiffs, agents and landlords.
The whole affair cost the Times close to £20 million in todays terms. It almost bankrupted the newspaper. Given our experience of tribunals here it sounds like excellent value. Parnells reputation was greatly enhanced. An invitation to Gladstones Hawarden residence indicated that a new Home Rule Bill was back on the agenda of any future Liberal administration. But, of course, before that particular train could leave the station, Capt William OShea tore up the tracks with the divorce petition that finished Parnells brilliant career and split his party. In the end, the Times got exactly what it wanted.