The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1181. Thursday, 20 November 1997.
From: Daniel Traister <
Date: Wednesday, 19 Nov 1997 12:59:19 -0500
Subject: Drama Scholar Helps Police in Literary Detection
Drama Scholar Helps Police in Literary Detection
By Terry Pristin
The New York Times, Wednesday, 19 November 1997
You are what you write. At least, that's how Dr. Donald W. Foster sees
Foster, who teaches dramatic literature at Vassar College, made a name
for himself in the academic world by persuading many other scholars that
a long and disappointingly bland funeral elegy came from the pen of
Now he spends his spare moments helping to solve crimes.
It all started last year after Foster wrote an article for New York
magazine identifying Joe Klein, the journalist, as the anonymous author
of Primary Colors, the political roman a clef.
Since then, law-enforcement officials have sought his help, and he has
applied his talents at text analysis to the Unabomber case, the murder
of JonBenet Ramsey and a 1996 double murder in Windsor, Conn. Usually
more at home with songs and sonnets, he is poring over extortion
letters, pseudonymous tips and ransom notes. The FBI has asked him to
teach agents some of the techniques he uses to unmask an author.
Those techniques include using a computer to see if the authors of two
different texts favor the same uncommon words and phrases. Then he
compares stylistic mannerisms, looking for parallel patterns in grammar,
syntax and sentence structure, errors of spelling and usage, and ideas
and psychological underpinnings.
This has been a heady period for the professor, who pedals a clunky
Schwinn between his apartment on the Vassar campus in Poughkeepsie,
N.Y., and his cluttered office and still looks boyish at 47. His
expertise has also been requested in a variety of civil matters-among
them a case in which he refuted a lawyer's hunch that opposing counsel
had ghostwritten the judge's opinion.
Despite his new sideline, Foster said, he is not about to abandon the
scholarship that made him prominent even before "Primary Colors."
He still devotes many of his working hours to shoring up his conclusion
about Shakespeare's authorship of the elegy for a young Oxford scholar
who was murdered in 1612, against a wave of what he describes as
"increasingly hysterical" skepticism among British academics. He is also
assembling an anthology of writing by medieval Englishwomen.
But the chance to poke his head out of the academic cloister from time
to time has proved stimulating, he said.
"I'm feeling the tremendous appeal of actually doing something that
might have value in the real world," he said. Little of that has been
monetary. He has been paid as much as $250 an hour for civil cases, but
has also volunteered his services in the Unabomber and Ramsey cases.
Other professors applauded Foster's forays into applied scholarship but
were cautious about making too many claims for such verbal fingerprints.
"It's a good advertisement for what we do," said Dennis Baron, a
professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois.
"As one tool among many," said Stanley Fish, a professor of English and
law at Duke University, "it seems to me to deserve a place in the legal
world, just as it does in the literary world. There's a legitimacy, as
long as you don't think it's the magic key."
It was the defense that first approached Foster in the Unabomber case.
Lawyers for Theodore Kaczynski, the suspect, hoped that the professor
would discredit a textual analysis made by the FBI comparing the
Unabomber manifesto to other writings ascribed to the defendant.
After looking at the documents, Foster said in a declaration filed with
U.S. District Court in California, he came to believe that the Unabomber
manifesto matched other writing samples from Kaczynski, who is accused
of killing three people and injuring 23 others. Then, in March, the FBI
asked him to examine the documents more thoroughly and respond to a
defense expert's contention that the agency's claims were "untenable and
unreliable at best."
He concluded instead that the FBI had understated its case. "The
evidence of common authorship is far more extensive, detailed and
compelling than the FBI has suggested," he said in the court document.
Neither the Justice Department nor Foster would release a longer
analysis he drafted because it is not part of the court record.
In the Ramsey case, Foster has provided Alex Hunter, the Boulder County,
Colo., district attorney, with extensive notes on the ransom letter
found after the 6-year-old JonBenet was murdered, and has studied
letters from "supposed tipsters," as he calls them.
Last summer, investigators in Windsor, Conn., asked Foster to analyze an
anonymous letter purporting to confess to the March 1996 murders of
Champaben Patel, 54, and her daughter, Anita Patel, 32 in an arson fire
at the mother's home. Detective Debra Swanson said she was referred to
Foster by the FBI. "We're very impressed with his work," she said. That
work is still going on, and the case remains unsolved.
Many people have the misconception that attributional work is mere
word-crunching, Foster said. The computer, he acknowledged, has provided
researchers with enormous capacity to winnow out likely authors of a
To help determine the origin of the funeral elegy, a project he began
when he stumbled across the unattributed poem in 1984 while he was a
graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara,
Foster developed a computer database called Shaxicon containing an index
of words that Shakespeare used most infrequently, cross-indexed with
thousands of other texts from the period.
But the database is only a starting point, he said. "The notion has been
perpetuated that there's a computer program that can identify
authorship, and there isn't," he said.
It is up to Foster to look for idiosyncrasies making up a distinctive
verbal pattern. "One can make deliberate errors to try to conceal one's
identity," he said, "but it's very hard to abandon one's customary
habits." In the case of "Primary Colors," for example, Foster found that
Anonymous and Joe Klein were both fond of compound words, colons and
In his criminal work, he also hunts for psychological clues, the aspect
of attributional work that he seems to find most engaging. "The person
who is being criticized or is under suspicion for committing some sort
of serious misdeed," he said, "will on the one hand adopt various
strategies for self-justification and various strategies for
To illustrate the point without divulging details of his current
criminal work, Foster cited O.J. Simpson's suicide note, which
originally contained the phrase, "First, everyone understand I have
nothing to do with Nicole's murder," until Simpson scratched out the
words "I have." To the professor, this suggested "a need to conceal the
self and its agency."
Foster said his penchant for ferreting out personality traits is what
particularly irritated Klein. In his Feb. 26, 1996 article for New York
magazine, Foster suggested that both Anonymous and Klein had "issues"
about blacks. "Anonymous thinks like Joe Klein," he concluded. "He has
read Klein's Newsweek commentaries on race, and he thinks it's pretty
smart stuff. Good blacks are hard-working, middle-class,
nonthreatening. Bad blacks need quotas, affirmative action, welfare,
gerrymandering." After the article appeared, Klein said he took offense
at having his writing characterized that way.
"This made him very angry," Foster said in the interview, "because he
wanted to say, 'This is not me.' " Klein declined to be interviewed for
Foster was not actually the first person to identify Klein, but he may
have had the most to lose. "Three editors had just announced that the
funeral elegy would be included in their forthcoming editions of
Shakespeare's work," the professor said, "and suddenly, Foster's
authority started looking pretty shaky."
Unaccustomed to dealing with authors in a position to issue denials and
unable to reconcile the vehemence of Klein's protests with his own
methodology, Foster backed off a bit, suggesting that Klein might have
had some help in writing "Primary Colors."
The professor's ordeal ended when The Washington Post got hold of a copy
of the manuscript containing Klein's handwritten notes and Klein
acknowledged its authorship.
The full potential of literary attribution has yet to be explored,
Foster said. "Text analysis is now where DNA analysis was a few years
ago, or where fingerprinting was 50 years ago," he said. "We're
realizing that we can learn an awful lot from evidence of this sort."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times