“Moldy sponge,” “orange cheese,” “green grass.” Inside a Washington, D.C., laboratory, rows of oddly labeled bottles and jars line the shelves. To the untrained eye, the samples are just colored liquids with strange names. But to U.S. Secret Service agents, they’re crime-busting tools.
In 1865, counterfeit currency flooded the United States. President Abraham Lincoln asked his administration to solve the crisis. It created the “Secret Service Division” within the Department of the Treasury. The Service hunted down forged bills. Sadly, President Lincoln died before the agency officially began operations. It wasn’t until 1902 that protecting the U.S. president and other high-profile officials became part of the Secret Service’s duties.
Today, the Secret Service uses the International Ink Library to investigate threat and ransom letters, phony documents, and fake memorabilia. The library contains more than 15,000 samples of pen, marker, and printer inks dating back more than 85 years.
Christians have a test for establishing true and genuine statements and claims that dates back even farther. They are to “Test everything” against God’s word, the Bible, and then “hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) The purpose of the ink library was to address that need in a very practical, hands-on way.
Renowned investigator and former Secret Service chief chemist Antonio Cantu began collecting ink samples in the 1960s. He pioneered a method of analyzing ink to determine its age. He also developed ways to determine when an ink was put onto a paper. Even forgers using old ink didn’t pass Cantu’s tests.
Ink studies have helped foil murder plots, bust counterfeit rings, and identify criminals. For example, a query once came in about a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. Analysis showed the ink on the leather orb wasn’t even available when Ruth was alive.
In another case, a former assistant to artist Jasper Johns presented papers showing that certain of Johns’ art pieces had been given to the assistant. The assistant wanted to sell the paintings and make lots of money. However, ink studies proved the papers were forgeries.
The Secret Service dedicated the ink lab in Cantu’s honor after his death in 2018. Director Kelli Lewis says the lab continues adding new inks to Cantu’s collection. “We’ve had to evolve with the library,” she says, “so we’re looking at ink jet as well as writing samples from pens and markers.”
Scott Walters is a forensic analyst who studied with Cantu. “About 15 years ago we started hearing, ‘Oh, this is going to die out, everyone is using computers,’” he says. “But that’s not true. Handwriting, written documents, it’s still such a large part of an investigation.”