Date posted:  February 3, 2016

When Fenella G. France, Ph.D. (U.S. Library of Congress) came to Gilcrease Museum in January to examine the founding documents of the United States in the archival collection, she was in for a surprise. She had heard about the certified copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane when they were U.S. Ambassadors to France. She knew about the Articles of Confederation and the letters of transmittal between Franklin and Baron von Schulenburg, Frederick the Great’s representative in Paris.

She was also aware of the various letters and documents signed by founding fathers of this country, but she did not know if the documents would reveal any historical information other than that gleaned from the words of the typescripts of the originals.

As chief of the Preservation and Testing Division of the Library of Congress, France had examined comparable documents in Washington, D.C. through a process called hyperspectral imaging. The technology has only recently been used in historic research. The process involves exposure to low levels of LED lighting, which is noninvasive and emits no heat for a fraction of a second, to examine successive layers of ink and watermarks, and determine the chemical components of the paper and ink with no risk to the paper itself. It is the equivalent of conducting an MRI.

On the earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence held by the Library of Congress, France was able to determine that Thomas Jefferson had changed the word “subjects” to “citizens” although this revision was unseen by the naked eye. The evidence of the alteration was apparent only through hyperspectral imaging.

France examined the Gilcrease documents in preparation for Library of Congress technicians coming to the Helmerich Center for American Research in February to do the imaging. She expected only to identify documents and not to make any discoveries in advance.

But in a close visual examination, France noticed something that had eluded the many scholars who had previously studied the “birth certificate” of the United States in the Gilcrease Archives. On the museum’s certified copy of the Declaration, over the handwritten words “we have petitioned” are clearly visible the loops and whorls of a fingerprint preserved in possibly the same ink in which the document was written. The document appeared to include at least two identifiable prints of one of America’s founding fathers.

Soon the team of specialists arrived to apply the hyperspectral imaging to examine the Declaration of Independence along with several other significant documents in the Gilcrease archival collections. The technique revealed much about the founding documents of the United States in the Gilcrease archives. Then to ascertain whose fingerprints were on Gilcrease’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, France added good old-fashioned detective work and handwriting analysis. The fingerprints are in the same ink in which the document was written, and the handwriting matched documents in the Connecticut State Archives written by one of the endorsers, Silas Deane, U.S. Ambassador to France in 1776-1777.