Howland will forgery trial

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The Howland will forgery trial was a U.S. court case in 1868 to decide Henrietta Howland Robinson's contest of the will of Sylvia Ann Howland. It is famous for the forensic use of mathematics by Benjamin Peirce as an expert witness.


Sylvia Ann Howland died in 1865, leaving roughly half her fortune of some 2 million dollars (equivalent to $31,291,000 in 2016) to various legatees, with the residue to be held in trust for the benefit of Robinson, Howland's niece. The remaining principal was to be distributed to various beneficiaries on Robinson's death.

Robinson produced an earlier will, leaving her the whole estate outright. To the will was attached a second and separate page, putatively seeking to invalidate any subsequent wills. Howland's executor, Thomas Mandell, rejected Robinson's claim, insisting that the second page was a forgery, and Robinson sued.

In the ensuing case of Robinson v. Mandell, Charles Sanders Peirce testified that he had made pairwise comparisons of 42 examples of Howland's signature, overlaying them and counting the number of downstrokes that overlapped. Each signature featured 30 downstrokes and he concluded that, on average, 6 of the 30 overlapped, 1 in 5. Benjamin Peirce showed that the number of overlapping downstrokes between two signatures also closely followed the binomial distribution, the expected distribution if each downstroke was an independent event. When the admittedly genuine signature on the first page of the contested will was compared with that on the second, all 30 downstrokes coincided, suggesting that the second signature was a tracing of the first.

Benjamin Peirce, Charles' father, then took the stand and asserted that, given the independence of each downstroke, the probability that all 30 downstrokes should coincide in two genuine signatures was .[1] He went on to observe

The court ruled that Robinson's testimony in support of Howland's signature was inadmissible as she was a party to the will (see conflict of interest). The statistical evidence was not called upon in judgment.

The case is one of a series of attempts to introduce mathematical reasoning into the courts. People v. Collins is a more recent example.


  1. ^ "one in 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000", that is, in the order of magnitude of sextillions