Sheila Lowe: Can Handwriting Reveal a Serial Killer?
Sheila Lowe is a forensic handwriting expert with more forty years of experience in the field. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and is the author of several published books including Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, as well as Sheila Lowe’s Handwriting Analyzer software. Her first mystery novel, Poison Pen, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and introduces forensic handwriting expert, Claudia Rose, who uses her handwriting analysis skills to help solve crimes. Www.sheilalowe.com for information about handwriting analysis. Www.claudiaroseseries.com to read a sample chapter and view a book trailer. Www.superceu.com continuing education for marriage and family therapists and licensed clinical social workers. Sheila@sheilalowe.com
Can Handwriting Reveal a Serial Killer?
He was handsome, charismatic, captivating. He was convicted of the rape and murder of ten women in Florida. He’d probably raped at least fifty.
As with other violent crimes, serial murder is on the increase. Between 1900-1950, an average of 1.2 cases a year were recorded. In 1960 there were 12 cases. By the 1980s this offense had jumped to an average of two cases a month. Since 1977 more than two hundred serial killers have been convicted, with well over a thousand victims between them. More than 80% of all serial murders have occurred in less than 30 years.
Like others of his ilk, serial murderer Robert Joseph Long managed to elude capture over a lengthy period–how? Because he was able to look and act pretty much like the average guy. He knew how to fit into society and appear like the rest of us. But his handwriting held clues that pointed to pathological behavior.
Most people agree that the way a person walks says a lot about him. Someone who swaggers into a room, for example, has a very different personality from one who diffidently creeps along, hugging the wall. Researchers tell us that facial expressions are interpreted the same way the world over, and one’s tone of voice indicates his mood. Similarly, handwriting is a projective behavior akin to body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, and it reveals a important information about motivation and personality, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Having said that, let me be very clear that there is no such thing as a “criminal handwriting.” In an attempt to identify patterns of similarity in the handwritings of serial killers, I examined the handwritings of a number of notorious murderers. What I discovered was, there was no direct “this-means-that” correlation of a personality trait to a handwriting characteristic; it was far more subtle than that.
It would have been handy if we could neatly package up a syndrome of traits and instantly identify a serial killer or any other type of criminal, but what actually manifests in handwriting are red flags for certain types of pathological behavior, or the potential for it. Because what we see written on a sheet of paper is like a photograph of the past, the handwriting professional can make some extrapolations, but cannot absolutely predict future behavior.
With the exception of Wesley Allan Dodd, the handwritings available for my examination were written after incarceration, when these men and women were forced to toe the mark and curb their deadly appetites. The restraint they had to practice–the need to follow strict prison rules–had an effect on their handwriting, making it appear far more rigid and controlled than in the time leading up to a kill, when their murderous rage was building to a breaking point.
Robert Joseph Long, mentioned in the introduction to this article, has been described as “shockingly brutal.” He beat, raped, and strangled his victims. Long’s handwriting is rigid to an extreme, seen in the tight, angular forms, which indicates a lack of emotional release. Positive emotional release would be seen in a balance of rounded and angular forms. Note the extremely long t-crosses. This straight horizontal movement, combined with the rigidity, reveals his need to dominate and control others.
Wesley Allan Dodd, executed at his own request by hanging in 1993, kept a diary during the time he was killing little boys. His handwriting during the time leading up to a killing is far more “released” (though not in a positive way) and expansive than the second sample, written after he was convicted. You don’t have to be a handwriting expert to see the difference in the two samples. The second one is reminiscent of Bob Long’s, highly controlled and rigid, while the first is out of control.
Serial murder is not confined to male perpetrators. Aileen Wuornos, the subject of the movie, Monster, was executed in 2002 for the deaths of seven men. Christine Slaughter Falling (talk about an appropriate name!), whose handwriting appears below, is a very different personality type, but just as deadly. She was accused of killing at least six infants and toddlers she babysat, and was convicted of three counts of murder in 1982, receiving a life sentence that made her eligible for parole in 25 years. In an interview for CNN in 1992, Falling was asked what she would do if released. Her answer: she would like to babysit again, because, “I love kids to death.” She was denied parole in 2006.
Her handwriting sample, written after 10 years of incarceration, is the polar opposite of Dodd’s and Long’s. The extreme roundedness of the writing and the large size, suggest an egocentric person who was constantly seeking love and approval (though clearly, not in healthy ways). The letters “M” on “Me” and “R” on “really” are made in such a way that they look like an X. Such forms are often made by people with a death consciousness, sometimes by one who has experienced a death close to them, or perhaps have received a serious diagnosis of physical illness. In Falling’s case, perhaps her responsibility for the deaths of several young children was on her mind–though not her conscience. This handwriting specimen wasn’t made by someone with a conscience.
Another fairly rare characteristic in Falling’s handwriting is seen in some of the upper loops, such as the “l” on “letter,” which are made in the shape of a candle flame. The flame-shaped upper loop is often seen in one who has sustained a blow to the head. It’s known that when Christine was 8 years old, her mother (who was a 16 year-old-prostitute when Christine was born), hit her in the head with a two-by-four, after which she began having seizures. These flame-shaped loops are often created by those who tend to see the world quite differently than most of us do.
Most, if not all, serial killers came from childhoods where they were abused and/or neglected. Yet, comparatively few abused children grow up to be killers or engage in other types of crime. Many factors, both nature and nurture come into play. Genetics, environment, and the individual’s personal responses to a variety of experiences blend together to determine the outcome.
Handwriting, like personality, is made up of thousands of variables. In order to make any kind of objective assessment, it is important to study the whole picture, not just bits and pieces. The characteristics described above were viewed within the context of larger samples of writing, and are intended only as an teaser to what kinds of information is revealed. Handwriting cannot tell everything about the writer, but it can open a window into the mind, both of the criminal and the “normal” person. Some psychologists find it helps them to get a rapid grasp on what makes a person tick–whether the writer is motivated by the need for power, the need for security, the need to be loved, etc. Especially when used in conjunction with other personality assessment instruments, handwriting analysis can be an important tool for understanding the human psyche.
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< * Any typos are all mine (Lee). I posted this last night in a hotel lobby at midnight. Sorry, Sheila.
Unfortunately I didn’t see your post until long after you made it, but perhaps you will still get my answer. It sounds like you’ve already answered your own question. If your friend’s behavior is a problem for you now, working for her and traveling with her is likely to make things a whole lot worse. Even though I haven’t seen her handwriting, I hope you declined the job.
I wasn’t able to read your whole article because it started to really scare me and I didn’t want nightmares. So I looked at the writing examples. The very first one kinda looks like my writing, but the last one looks like my friend Ash. She does have big mood swings sometimes… should I steer clear? She recently offered me a job,we’d be traveling around the US for the job. I’m at a crossroads in our friendship because of her mood swings and attitude. But it’s CRAZY how much her handwriting and that one matches!
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I have been involved in a few murder cases as a handwriting expert, but mostly my work in that area is when something comes up in the media, such as the recent Clark Rockefeller case. I try to stay objective, regardless of what I’m working on, but there are times when it’s hard not to be affected.
A very important thing to understand about handwriting is that no single trait stands on its own. It has to be viewed with everything else that’s going on in the sample. In my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, there’s an entire chapter devoted to some of the “red flags” for potentially dangerous behavior. One especially difficult combination is very heavy writing pressure and a strong writing slant, as they often point to an explosive personlity (but that’s a generalization).
People can changes aspects of their personality by doing handwriting exercises, but they are only able to bring out traits that are part of their nature–it’s not like magic 🙂
The most interesting thing–that’s hard to answer. I’ve been in this field for more than 40 years and have analyzed at least 15,000 handwritings. I suppose the forensic cases, especially when children are involved, are the most affecting and interesting. Thanks for asking!
I am a Design student, currently studying in Bath Spa university. I met a graphologist completely by chance a while ago and it struck me how much he could tell about my personality, and what may have shaped it. Just by looking at my sketchbook. This inspired me and I have been reading up since and descovered the darker side of handwriting anlysis and criminals. I have now been offered the opportunity on my graphic design degree to incorporate this into a project. I was wondering if anyone would possibly be able and willing to help me with my idea.
I was wondering if it would be possible for you to answer a few questions about the subject
– Have you worked on a live case, if so could you give me some details and explain how you felt and how it affected you?
– Is there any specific traits in people handwriting that ring alarm bells for you?
– Do you believe that people can change ther personality by changing their handwriting?
– Whats the most interesting thing in this area for you?
Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
It’s a really individual thing. As we age, various health conditions may begin to affect handwriting. Parkinson’s, for example, creates what’s call micrographia, which is basically tiny, shaky writing. Someone who remains in excellent health into old age wouldn’t have deteriorated handwriting.
There’s also the fact that we may become more relaxed and just not care as much, which will have an effect. Or it could just be that you’re in a hurry… Who said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar : )
Basically, handwriting changes to reflect our inner responses to various life experiences. That’s why it can be important for a handwriting analyst to have health information (mental and physical) about the writer in order to prepare the most accurate analysis.
This is really fascinating!
Does a person’s handwriting get worse as they get older? My writing was always very neat, but not anymore. Of course it could be that I’m just always in a hurry!
Even young children can be analyzed using specific types of drawings e.g., “Draw a house, a tree, a person.” The interpretation of these correlate very well with handwriting analysis. College students certainly are good candidates for analysis, even though they are still developing their personalities.
There are some schools of handwriting analysis who do believe in a direct one-to-one correlation of handwriting characteristic = personality trait. However, I use the gestalt method of analysis, which looks at the whole picture of writing: the spatial arrangement on the page, the form (the way it looks), and the writing “movement,” which encompasses things like rhythm, speed, pressure, and many other aspects of writing.
I’m glad you’re able to spot flags in your students handwriting. That can help head of problems before they explode.
There is a definite tendency toward printing these days, but that’s not a problem for the handwriting professional. Printing is done for a variety of reasons, but bottom line, it has the effect of attempting to cover up emotions (provide control) and it breaks the bonds between oneself and others. Think of the connection between letters as reaching out to touch someone else. Schools are not teaching cursive much anymore, which has an effect on behavior (see http://www.retrainthebrain.com) and reading skills because the specific hand movements a chlid learns when beginning to write have an effect on the areas of the brain that develop self-control.
Thank you, definitely a fascinating way to help with evaluation. As long as the individual takes to heart your message that this is not “direct “this-means-that” correlation”.
In how young a person would handwriting be a useful tool? I ask because I found that with my college students their handwriting could be useful for pointers when something didn’t seem quite right.
Sheila, thank you so much for that really enlightening post! If I can ask a question, I noticed that all the samples you gave were in script (cursive?). Have you seen any samples by people such as those you mentioned, who primarily write in print? I’m wondering what it might mean if someone prefers print over cursive handwriting.