Papers, please! A short history of identification, part 1

My Moriarty mysteries tend to revolve around fraud, of which there was an abundance in the Victorian period. It was so much easier to get away with things back then — not that we’ve abolished fraud in our century. I wanted a character to present a forged check at a bank and wondered how he would go about it. What sort of identification would he have to concoct to succeed?

Turns out the answer was, “None.” Or, more accurately, “The time-honored method of having a person trusted by the receiver vouch for the presenter’s identity personally.” Even as late as 1886, that’s all we had. Amazing!

A book about everything


The first Japanese passport, 1866

I keep saying it and I keep being proved right: there’s a book about everything. In this case, it’s Edward Higgs’ Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present (2011, New York: Continuum.) The book answered my question, but I don’t really recommend it. The major theme is that identification is imposed by the state for authoritarian purposes which could lead you right into a gas chamber if you’re not careful, which you won’t be, because Commerce has seduced you into a condition of blissful ignorant compliance. The tip-off, as usual, is an abundance of references to Michel Foucault in the introduction. 

We’re going to ignore the trendy polemics and look at how people identified themselves to — yes, of course, usually some state or financial institution. Who else would really care? Oh, doctor’s offices, one would hope; match.commies and their ilk; teachers, dry cleaners…. I’m kind of pro-identification, in the grand scheme of things. Give up a little, I guess, to gain a lot. Let’s not even talk about the benefit of having anything your heart desires delivered to your doorstep in two days!

Social proof

Simon Cole is quoted on p4: “In general, pre-modern societies already had an effective method of Three-Men-before-a-Judgepersonal, and criminal, identification: the network of personal acquaintance through which persons were ‘known’ in the memories and perceptions of their neighbors.” (Only a modern social scientist would put scare quotes around the word ‘known’ in this context. Yes, yes. We ‘know’ no one can ‘know’ anyone.)

And that was it. If you had to prove your identity, you brought some people (men) who knew you to say, “Yes, that’s him!” This is still happening in the Elizabethan period. A minor in the care of the Court of Wards who wanted to prove he had reached his majority had to collect testimony from people who remembered when he was born and have the said testimonials judged by a jury. His birth might have been registered in the parish church by mid-16th century, but more likely not.


Perkin Warbeck

I can imagine getting into this situation today, actually. I write as Anna Castle, but she’s not a legal entity. I don’t have any ID for her. What if something came up where I wanted to be recognized as Anna Castle over someone’s objections? (OK, that’s hard to imagine, because who would care?) I couldn’t whip out a driver’s license, a passport, or my university ID. The picture in my paperbacks isn’t that perfect and what if I’d changed my hair? I’d have to summon six friends brave and true to say, “Yep, Heidi and Anna are one and the same person.”

Without such personal testimony, people mis-represented themselves all the time. Easy-bleepin’-peasy. Perkin Warbeck fooled many people in the late 15th century into thinking he was Richard, Duke of York, and thus heir to the English throne.

There’s a long list of imposters on Wikipedia, surprisingly many from the 20th century — a time after which things like fingerprints and passports were available. 

Who are you?


Fernando Niño de Guevara, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1600–1602)

What if you really wanted to be sure you had the right person? Let’s say you’re a member of the Spanish Inquisition and you don’t want to waste your time racking the wrong religious rebel. Valentin Groebner’s Who Are You? focuses on the problem of identification in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Quoting Higgs (p.8): “… we learn about the officers of the Inquisition pursuing heretics with the latter’s portraits painted on small linen cloths; of soldiers, city officials and beggars wearing badges of idenfication; of travellers with official letters of safe conduct; of pilgrims issued with health certificates; and of the attempts of Phillip II of Spain to use documents to restrict the passage of heretics, moriscos and Jews to the New World.”

Documents and badges could be easily stolen. And if you were any good as a spy, you could probably replace that linen portrait with a linen portrait of someone else. My people would substitute a portrait of the inquisitor himself — and now I have to go write that down because it sounds like a really great plot for a short story.


If you could get your hands on the person’s naked body, you could search for distinguishing marks like moles in the shape of badgers or whatever, tattoos, birth marks. Criminals would be branded or have an ear or a hand cut off. That’s hard to fake and fairly unambiguous. “No, officer, I lost that ear when my head was caught in a mechanical rice picker.”

How to identify yourself

Here’s a list of ways to identify yourself, provided by Higgs (p. 37):

  1. appearance – or how the person looks;
  2. social behaviour – or how the person interacts with others;

    Maori Chief 1784

  3. names – or what the person is called by other people;
  4. codes – or what the person is called by an organization;
  5. knowledge – or what the person knows;
  6. tokens – or what the person has;
  7. bio-dynamics – or what the person does;
  8. natural physiography – or what the person is; and
  9. imposed physical characteristics – or what the person is now.

So, if they walk you into your supposed office and someone rushes up and says, “There you are! We can’t start the meeting without our director of chicanery!”, your claim is substantially supported. Also, if you speak French, or are unable to speak French. Easier to fake the lack than the possession of knowledge.

I’m not sure where handwriting fits into this list. Is it bio-dynamics? But a very important form of identification before the twentieth century was a letter of recommendation — handwritten, perforce, by someone whose hand is known to the receiver. If you’ve ever taught or worked in a restaurant, you know how quickly you learn to recognize many different hands. 

Here’s a sample of Francis Bacon’s handwriting, which would have been familiar to many people in high places in England during his long life.


From “Certen notes of rememberance owt of the examinacions of H. Walpoole, Jhon Boast & others.”


Next time, we’ll look at more forms of non-documentary proofs of identity, edging our way up to the transformations at the turn of the 20th century.


Higgs, Edward. 2011. Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification, 1500 to the Present. New York: Continuum.

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