Often when I am clutching at straws to determine the relationship between individuals or families, I will compare signatures from the relevant documents. There is an inherent bias in my interpretation of this evidence – am I seeing what I want to see? How reliable is signature comparison as a form of genealogical evidence, and how can I make my interpretation more objective?

I will give two examples below which you may refer to in your answer:

  • Thomas Bourne signatures:

Thomas Bourne signature 1 Thomas Bourne signature 2)

  • Ralph Hanshaw/Hanshall signatures:

Ralph Hanshaw signature 1 Ralph Hanshall signature 2

I have reason to believe each of these examples may be signatures of the same man, but I have no definitive evidence one way or the other. Note there was a number of years between the signatures in each case. How might one objectively interpret these?

  • 2
    I'm more convinced about Thomas' signatures both being the same man than I am about the two for Ralph. I'm wondering whether it would be helpful to include the approximate date and location of the signatures as well as the ages when the men are thought to have penned them? I suspect signatures get "shaky" in old age, are "primitive" when very young, etc
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 4:00
  • @PolyGeo I deliberately didn't include too many details as I think that tends to bias the interpretation. For now I'll just say they come from the early eighteenth century, in the Midlands of England.
    – Harry V.
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 12:51
  • 1
    My first step in the analysis would be to determine if these are signatures of the person in question, and not clerk's copies of a document which the person had signed (so the signature is actually in the clerk's handwriting).
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 17:21
  • 1
    @Jan Good point - but yes these are all original signatures
    – Harry V.
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 17:42
  • I left a link to a bibliography for you in chat (see the Conference Room).
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 18:16

2 Answers 2


Handwriting analysis is a bit of an art. As a teenager, I picked up a book about it and it was fascinating. Certain types of people always cross their t's and dot their i's. Others, like athletes, write with big loops and long tails.

If we are older or sick, the writing may be weak or shaky. But even so, the key thing is that one person will tend to write specific letters the same way. This involves the loops, the dots, the crosses and the overall shape of a specific letter.

In your above examples, the T and B of Thomas Bourne are distinctive and written similarly. There are many ways of writing a T and a B, and few would choose that combination. So you are likely correct in thinking those two signatures may be the same person.

In your second example, the R p h a and s are written quite differently in the two samples, so I would lean towards those being different people.


As luck would have it, I stumbled on this discussion puzzling over the exact same signatures. I suspect the Ralphs are different, because the second Ralph is consistent in the way he signs his name. I am including another image from a different document that he also signed.enter image description here


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