Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Jim the Penman”

“Jim the Penman”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 11, 2008

Before there was Mark Hofmann, there was “Jim the Penman.”

Jim – or James Townsend Saward – was an English barrister, active in the British law courts in the 1840s and ’50s. This legal gentleman had a profitable sideline as a forger of checks. He was even involved in the gold theft that formed the basis of Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery.

After Saward was convicted and transported to Australia, the nickname was bestowed on Emanuel Ninger, a New York counterfeiter who netted an estimated $50,000 profit in his short 1880s career.

By 1886, “Jim the Penman” was the obvious name for the forger character in a popular New York detective play, a theater staple for the next quarter century. That story was filmed in 1915. And again in 1921. And again in 1947. And possibly other times that I haven’t yet discovered.

So who is “Jim the Penman” who signed the bottom of this page, dated October 18, 1921, at Washington, D.C.?

The page bears the autographs of men such as LDS president Joseph F. Smith, apostle George Q. Cannon, first governor of the State of Utah Heber M. Wells, former territorial representative to Congress John T. Caine, and more than a dozen others of Salt Lake City’s top businessmen and women. And how did some of them – like Joseph F. Smith, like George Q. Cannon – come to sign this page years after their deaths?

Well, in October 1921, some businessmen from Utah went to Washington, D.C., to negotiate with the War Finance Corporation the loan of ten million dollars to aid the struggling sugar beet industry of Utah and Idaho. The meetings were long and tedious, and during one such meeting, “Jim the Penman” amused himself by doodling the autographs of these prominent men and women whom he knew so well and whose signatures had crossed his desk countless times. Noticing what he had done, the vice president of a Denver bank asked if he could keep the page for a souvenir.

A few years later, “Jim the Penman” negotiated another large loan, this time in Denver. One of the conditions of that loan was that he secure the endorsements of 20 leading Utah businessmen. He did. At a dinner concluding negotiations, this page of autographs from the 1921 meeting was produced, with the quip that no doubt “Jim” could just as well have produced 50 endorsements as the 20 that were requested.

In this case “Jim the Penman” was Heber J. Grant, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From childhood he had cultivated the habit of good penmanship, and from the time he was in his early teens he had been earning money by writing for those who prized neater, more artistic writing than most of us can muster. He wrote out invitations to parties and weddings, copied legal documents, inscribed insurance policies and stock certificates, and taught penmanship at the University of Deseret. Calling cards were another rich source of income:

I once made twenty dollars on New Year’s day [he said] by writing forty dozen cards with ‘Happy New Year’ and the man’s name written in the corner. The next New Year’s day I made $37.50 in five hours. I wrote on fifty dozen cards the words ‘Happy New Year’ and sold them all, and had to write more.

Apostle Richard L. Evans wrote once that he had seen Pres. Grant write the autographs of other church leaders so perfectly that such men as John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage could not tell the difference between his forgeries and the autographs they had written with their own hands.

I don’t know how he did it. I can’t imagine him spending valuable hours tracing and perfecting autographs just as a party stunt. I suspect that his mind didn’t see individual letters the way mine does, to be written one at a time in composing words and sentences, but that instead his eye saw signatures as a whole, as artworks to be reproduced the way some artists can copy sketches, without his mind telling his hand that “this is the way you make an H, this is the way you make a G …”

In any case, I’m glad this “Jim the Penman” was a man to be trusted!



  1. I have to tell you, I left my wife at home with this open on the computer as I went to work this morning, only to later receive a call

    “Ardis is so cool. I should read her blog everyday!”

    I’ve been telling her and telling her, but I guess you have to experience it to believe it. :)

    Comment by Matt W. — November 11, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  2. What a cool hobby to have!

    This story would be great to add to a talk or Sunday School lesson. We always hear how HJG perfected his own handwriting. We never hear how he perfected other’s handwriting as well.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 11, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  3. Wow. Grant has always been one of my favorites among the presidents of the church, and you’ve managed to reinforce my bias toward him. Thanks for the neat story.

    Comment by Researcher — November 11, 2008 @ 10:29 am

  4. This is awesome; thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben — November 11, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  5. I have an high school autograph book belonging to my grandmother from the 1920’s. No pictures, just a book or originally blank pages. It had signatures and notes from lots of her school friends. What struck me was the importance placed on the beauty of the writing even at the expense of correct spelling. It looks nice and that was what was most important.

    Comment by BruceC — November 11, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  6. Very cool stuff, Ardis. I was unfamiliar with this side of Heber J. Grant.

    Comment by Christopher — November 11, 2008 @ 11:17 am

  7. Very cool. (And since I didn’t mention it on the other thread, Welcome back. And thanks for coming back. I’ve been exhibiting withdrawal symptoms.)

    Comment by Edje — November 11, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  8. Stupendous! I love it!

    Ardis, your last full paragraph reminds me of the part of “The Witch of Portobello” by Paulo Coelho wherein the protagonist is studying calligraphy with an old Arab in the desert.


    Comment by Ben Pratt — November 11, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  9. I don’t know how he did it.

    Obviously, the Devil made him do it.

    I suppose you are ready to ask Brother Brigham if he thinks the power of the Devil could make the vase dance. Yes, and could take it up and carry it out doors, just as easy as to . . . get a hold of a person’s hand, and make him write in every style you can think of, imitating George Washington’s, Benjamin Franklin’s, Joseph Smith’s, and other autographs.

    Comment by JimD — November 11, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  10. A very suspicious comment from one who is himself named Jim!

    A friend just told me that hanging on the wall of the pioneer church in the Pioneer Village end of Lagoon is a similar page of HJG’s, um, creative penmanship. I’ll have to wait until spring to follow up on that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 11, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  11. Unfortunately, I have no party tricks.

    This is super cool.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 11, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  12. Wow the things you learn about people. Amazing stuff, I agree though Ardis, what a tedious process just to use as a trick. Though it does make one wonder what got him doing it in the first place.

    Comment by Jon W. — November 12, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  13. I don’t know the entire history of his education, but Heber J. Grant was a student at the Morgan Commercial College on First South Street in Salt Lake City. Penmanship, “plain and ornamental,” was very much stressed by the founder, John Morgan. I’m looking right now at a list of students which is written in the most lovely, easily readable script imaginable. Some of the students: Heber J. Grant, Brigham H. Roberts, Orson F. Whitney, Ruth May Fox, J. Golden Kimball, and many other notable names.

    Comment by Researcher — November 12, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  14. Very interesting. I’d like to find samples of the authentic signatures and compare them to HJG’s versions. I located a JFS signature on for one point of comparison.

    Comment by Justin — November 12, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  15. Justin, that one doesn’t look like the JFS signature that I’m familiar with in using his letters — it looks much more like his name written by a calligrapher than the way he signed his name routinely. I wonder where they got that one?

    But you’ve given me an idea. I’ll try to collect scans of authentic signatures and pair them with the ones on this page. Might take a while, but I’ll get started.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 12, 2008 @ 11:51 am

  16. Good to know, Ardis.

    Comment by Justin — November 12, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  17. Ardis,

    This is a great nugget of history. Very COOL.

    Comment by Jeff Taylor — November 18, 2008 @ 3:23 am

  18. Well,now that we have been directed here from the cornerstone time capsual post, what is the status of this project?

    Comment by Eric Boysen — September 3, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

  19. It’s at the stage of thanks for reminding me!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 3, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

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