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Horn Papers: Forged Local History

The three-volume set, entitled “The Horn Papers,” was published by the Greene County, Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1945. This guide comprises resources related to the discrediting of the first two volumes by historical scholars as forgeries.

Introduction

McConnell's map of Greene County, Pennsylvania. 1865. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The Horn Papers are a three volume set of books published by the Greene County, Pennsylvania Historical Society (GCHS) in 1945. The first two of these three volumes were promptly discredited by historical scholars as forgeries. However, ongoing access to the books—in some cases without any accompanying context of the hoax—continues to spread misinformation nearly three-quarters of a century after the scandal was exposed.

William Franklin Horn [1870-1956], of Topeka, Kansas, initiated The Horn Papers by submitting newspaper columns, between 1933 and 1936, to the Washington Observer and Democrat Messenger newspapers in Washington and Greene Counties, Pennsylvania, respectively. He claimed that the content he provided was from historical documents purported to be among his family papers. Horn alleged that these records included two diaries kept by his ancestors between 1735 and 1795, as well as a court docket dated 1772-1779, and other assorted court orders, maps, and miscellaneous items. If true, the broad impact of such early information would have advanced, and in some cases challenged, the extant history for the region, particularly in southwestern Pennsylvania and nearby areas of northwestern West Virginia and Maryland. Horn’s newspaper articles elevated him to local celebrity. He lectured, advised, gave tours, assisted genealogists, and donated pieces from his collection throughout the region.

After a struggle to find a publisher willing to print Horn’s unsubstantiated claims, the Greene County Historical Society raised $20,000.00 to fund the project. Within months of the December 1945 release of The Horn Papers three volume set, criticism from historical scholars prompted the Institute of Early American History & Culture External, an independent research organization sponsored by the College of William & Mary, to launch an investigation.1 The Archivist of the United States, Solon Justus Buck, chaired the committee of eleven experts who engaged in a thorough examination. Scientific dating and evaluation was applied to items of metal, glass, ink, and paper in Horn's collection. Intense analysis of history and language enabled the identification and assessment of inconsistencies, conflicts, and anachronisms in Horn's text. The committee members were:

  • Chairman – Dr. Solon Justus Buck [1884-1962], Archivist of the United States
  • Executive Secretary – Dr. Arthur Pierce Middleton [1916-2009], archeologist and historian
  • Dr. Douglass Greybill Adair [1912-1968], editor of The William & Mary Quarterly
  • Francis L. Berkeley Jr. [1911-2003], representative of the Virginia Historical Society
  • Julian Parks Boyd [1903-1980], Librarian, Princeton University
  • Dr. Lester Jesse Cappon [1900-1981], representative of the Institute of Early American History & Culture
  • Dr. Lawrence Henry Gipson [1880-1971], representative of the Pennsylvania Historical Association
  • Franklin Fisk Holbrook [1883-1955], representative of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
  • Charles Francis Jenkins [1865-1951], representative of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
  • William Bose Marye [1886-1979], representative of the Maryland Historical Society
  • Delf Norona [1895-1974], President of the West Virginia Historical Society

The committee’s final report, published in the October 1947 issue of The William & Mary Quarterly, exposed The Horn Papers fraud:

In view of the fact that intensive investigation failed to discover a shred of evidence to substantiate the authenticity of the documents and on the contrary, found convincing evidence of their spuriousness, it is our opinion that the primary material in The Horn Papers is a fabrication and therefore that historians and genealogists ought not to rely on any data in Volumes I and II. Volume III, on the other hand, containing warrant, survey and patent maps prepared by the Pennsylvania Land Office, is valuable.2

The material in the well-received third volume had been included entirely as an initiative of the Greene County Historical Society. It contained no material submitted by William Franklin Horn.

The Greene County Historical Society was commended for their honorable intentions and cooperation with the committee. William Franklin Horn did not participate in the investigation. The committee’s inability to identify his motive remained one of the most perplexing unanswerable questions throughout the examination. It could not be determined if Horn himself had forged the documents or if he had replicated forgeries that he discovered and believed to be genuine.

Notes

  1. Established in 1943, the Institute of Early American History & Culture External has since amended its name to recognize benefactors Mr. and Mrs. Malvern H. Omohundro Jr. and consequently has been known as the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture External since 1996.  Back to text
  2. Arthur Pierce Middleton and Douglass Adair, "The Mystery of the Horn Papers," The William and Mary Quarterly no. 4 (October 1947): 444. Note: this article is available from the subscription resource "JSTOR" in the Newspapers and Periodicals section of this guide. Back to text