Spuriousity Jailed the Clerk


Edinburgh. The year is 1890. Having finished your duties as a clerk for the day, furiously copying legal documents until your hand, wrist, and arm are throbbing, you head home, not to rest, but for something else, something up your sleeve, something of value. You’ve been working. Grabbing a handful of documents that lay waiting just inside your door, you head back to town, hoping to catch a certain bookseller at a certain bookstore before he closes his doors for the evening. With a thump, and just in the nick of time, you lay the hefty manuscript on his counter. The bookseller smiles, maybe knowingly or maybe just kindly. A few exchanged words and minutes later, you too are smiling, relieved of your burden and exiting the bookstore with a pocket full of banknotes.

This may have been a slice of the life of one Alexander Howland Smith, at least for a few years, until the unassuming clerk was put on trial for “obtaining money by deceit.”  “Antique Smith,” as he was known, was a Scottish law clerk who produced literary forgeries circa 1888 to 1892. Around this time, Smith frequented the bookshops of Edinburgh, collecting books for their contemporary fly leaves on which he would produce his forgeries. Many of Smith’s dealings involved Edinburgh bookseller James Stillie, who may have been complicit in passing the forgeries. Though Smith reproduced an array of literary works, he forged the letters and manuscripts of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns most frequently. Smith was eventually discovered, arrested, and sentenced to one year in prison in 1892.


Forgery of “The Jolly Beggars” by Alexander Howland Smith. Circa 1888-1892. From MSS 099 945 Alexander Howland Smith papers regarding his forgery of Robert Burns’s The Jolly Beggars


University of Delaware Library Special Collections adds Antique Smith’s sixteen-page forgery of Robert Burns’s cantata “The Jolly Beggars,” to its broad holdings of forgeries and forgery-related material.  The manuscript is paired with documentation attempting to verify its authenticity which includes a dealer’s description by James Stillie, and a certificate from John Maitlan[d] stating he received the manuscript from Robert Burns.  The Alexander Howland Smith papers finding aid provides a detailed description of the collection.



Bookseller James Stillie’s presentation letter. “It is not warranted, But it has Mr. Maitlan[d] certificate as got from Burns.” Stillie may have been complicit in passing Smith’s forgeries. Undated.


Dustin Frohlich

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