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  • Urban Legend: the Magic Letter May 19, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    In the last months Beach has put up a number of posts on possible nineteenth-century urban legends: as they are reported as facts though and as the nineteenth-century was a foreign country (‘they did things differently there’) it is difficult, perhaps impossible with any certainty to distinguish the legendary from the simply bizarre. This is one of the more doubtful cases and the only reason for thinking that it is an urban legend is that it sounds impossible. However, any ex cons or card sharps out there might know better. Can you help? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Here is the explanation of the crime.

    A communication dealing with some trivial point was addressed by the members of a  ‘long firm’ to one of the banks abroad, by whom it was answered in the usual course. By some ingenious process the surface of the letter dispatched in reply was subsequently removed, the manager’s signature alone being left intact. The blank space was then utilised to advise the opening of a credit in favour of the long firm with another of the bank’s correspondents. As the signature at the bottom of the sheet was obviously genuine no difficulty was raised by these latter, and the swindlers accordingly got clear away with their booty. The incident is one which may be recommended to the careful consideration of bankers in general. Ed Eve News, 1 Apr 1890, 2*

    The key sentence is ‘By some ingenious process the surface of the letter dispatched in reply was subsequently removed, the manager’s signature alone being left intact.’ This is not a question of special paper as the bank manager himself sent the letter. Effectively three quarters of the ink on a sheet of paper was washed away and rewritten. To the best of Beach’s knowledge there is no ‘ingenious process’ not even with urine or coffee beans that would allow this today, never mind in 1890. It seems that there are a range of possible solutions that might work well on one word: say the grade given by a teacher on an exam, but to get rid of a hundred and fifty words without leaving a mark…

    *NB the date is 1 April, but the story appears in several newspapers in this date. It seems to have been published elsewhere ‘upstream’ before 1 April. This is, in other words, not an April Fool’s joke.