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Candice Buchanan, Reference Librarian, Local History and Genealogy Section
Created: October 14, 2020
Last Updated: March 17, 2021
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 He claimed that the content he provided was from historical documents purported to be among his family papers.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:
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.