Late though it may be in the age of print, we still envision ransom or other threatening notes in the same way we have for generations, with their demands incongruously spelled out with individual letters, each one a different size and font, taken from the pages of newspapers and magazines. This classic cut-and-paste method of ransom note construction presumably emerged as means of evading minds like that of Trista Ginsberg, a document analyst specializing in handwriting at the Secret Service. She appears in the Great Big Story above, which comes to focus on one facility at the Service’s headquarters in particular: the International Ink Library.
“The Secret Service has the largest ink library in the world,” says the video’s narrator. Its more than 12,000 samples of different inks include “pens, bottled ink, and printer cartridges.” These come in handy when, say, “someone writes a threatening letter to the president.”
A document analyst like Irina Geiman samples the letter’s ink, and then, by comparing it to the inks in the library, “she can figure out what kind of ink was used, and, hopefully, it can help solve the case.” Geiman also explains a less dramatic type of case that comes across her desk rather more often: at-home inkjet counterfeiting of $20 bills.
Though that may not be the highest example of the counterfeiter’s art, the art itself motivated the creation of the Secret Service in 1865 as a branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. “Following the Civil War,” says the Secret Service’s FAQ, “it was estimated that one-third to one-half of the currency in circulation was counterfeit.” It was in 1901, after the McKinley assassination, that “the Secret Service was first tasked with its second mission: the protection of the president.” Hence the cultural currency of the image of the would-be president assassin evading governmental pursuit while laboriously assembling his missives one letter at a time — surely reason enough for the Secret Service to have put together a top-secret International Glue Library.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.