I recently completed a condition report on an extensively fire- and water-damaged book believed to be a diary of the legendary Gulf Coast pirate Jean Lafitte. There are many layers of complexity to this item, whose authenticity has long been questioned. Its condition is poor; its maker’s identity is unclear; it has unexplained structural features that could indicate alteration; and its subject was himself a near-mythical figure whose life story is difficult to pin down. Discussing this item in full is beyond the scope of a single blog entry; it was nearly beyond the scope of a lengthy condition report! However, I would like to address one intriguing issue that demonstrates how the information in books goes beyond the written word and into the physical artifact.
First, to dispel the romantic notions that inevitably arise regarding a pirate diary, physical evidence suggests that this volume incurred much of its damage during a 1960s-era house fire, rather than a daring rescue from a sinking ship. Water damage frequently accompanies fire damage due to efforts to extinguish the flames. Tidelines and cockling typical of a water event appear throughout the volume. However, a stranger phenomenon is observed in the writing, as the brownish-black ink shifts to unexpected purple and red colors.
As would be expected for this time period (1845 – 1850,) chemical tests confirm that the ink in this volume is iron gall. However, iron gall ink does not typically display these color shifts, which indicate that some kind of water-soluble or pH-sensitive dye was added to the ink mixture. I began to wonder if this added dye could help us address some of the item’s authenticity issues.
Feasible dyes for the time period might have included traditional, organic materials like brazilwood or cochineal. But in 1856, a major change occurred in the dye industry: William Perkin invented mauve, the first synthetic chemical dye. Aniline dyes like mauve were relatively easy to make in bulk, and they became extremely popular in the second half of the 19th century.
Mauve is a lavender color not entirely dissimilar from the color shifts observed in the ink in the Lafitte Diary. If the Lafitte ink tested positive for aniline dye, then we could safely say that the ink was made after the dates attributed to the diary, which might help settle the authenticity debate once and for all. But there’s a catch: after research and consultation with colleagues, I can’t identify a test for aniline dye!
Should any readers be familiar with such a test, please do pass it along! And in the meantime, remember that books, as physical artifacts, carry significant information that goes beyond the written word, and that cannot be captured in a digital transfer. Perhaps one day we’ll find the physical clue that helps us understand the true nature of the complicated Lafitte Diary.