Ghost Signatures and Diamond Dealers

The front page of the Pittsburg Post-Gazette for Tuesday, August 3rd, 1920, brought a mysterious story:

Diamond Merchant’s Sudden Death Closes Pages In Famous ‘Ghost Book’

Chicago, Aug. 5 — The sudden death of Samuel T.A. Loftis, millionaire diamond dealer, after a night of wine and taxis, has closed the pages of a famous “Ghost Book,’ which Loftis has kept up for 14 years.

The book was found in the dead man’s apartment. It’s pages are of glazed paper, which, after being written on, were creased down the middle, causing the writing to blot in a freakish double smear.

Loftis, friends say, gave credence to the significance of “ghost signatures.”

This verse occupies the front page of the “Ghost Book”:

“Shadows form in our ghostly past; Ho! Ho! young man. Ho! Ho! From forgotten graves they will rise at last; It is so, young man, it is so. You may run, you may dodge, you may Twist, you may bend, The flying phantoms win in the end; Ho! Ho! old man, Ho! Ho!”

No further explanation of his death is given, not even why a photograph of his ex-wife was made part of the story.

The late Mr. Loftis held the distinction of inventing a new business model for diamond dealing: selling directly to the public on credit. Loftis Bros. and Company advertised in large metropolitan newspapers, offering low monthly payments for fine diamond jewelry. Owning diamonds was now within the reach of the burgeoning middle-class, but excessive debt was also one facet of the beginnings of the lending crisis that brought on the Great Depression. Loftis’ business was launched shortly after DeBeers began their campaign to push diamonds into the forefront; Loftis’ credit system helped make the diamond the de facto wedding ring stone for people of any income.

A “ghost signature” is produced just as described in the Loftis article. The process was much more effective in the days of fountain pens, with slow-drying India ink and a loose method of depositing the ink. The ‘glazed paper’ helped the process by preventing the ink from soaking in. The book was held sideways and the subject was encouraged to sign the book on half of a page, in their official hand and leaving as much ink as possible. The page was creased in the middle and the page folded back upon itself, creating a Rorschach-like inkblot, something for the mind to interpret in innumerable ways. Faces, bodies, animals, spirits, and monsters all appeared in the squished and smeared John Hancocks of the willing contributors to a Ghost Signature book.

As you might have guessed, the business model of preying on the turn-of-the-century middle-class with a promise of acquiring unaffordable luxury doesn’t spring from the minds of well-balanced, altruistic people. In June of 1907, Samuel Loftis suffered a gunshot wound and a split scalp…caused by his brother, Joseph Loftis — one of the “Loftis Bros.” on the masthead — during a business meeting. Samuel Loftis had read a motion to remove his brother as vice president due to unignorable indiscretions; the secretary of the company, Loftis’ wife, seconded the motion. One dissenting ‘nay’, from the soon-to-be-ousted vice-president, wasn’t enough to overturn the motion. Joseph Loftis was discharged from his position, and in return he emptied all six chambers of his revolver in Samuel Loftis’ direction and then leapt upon the wounded president with the intent of finishing the job by beating him with the butt of the revolver.

Samuel Loftis declined to press charges. Joseph was sent west and was the head of the Loftis Bros.’ Omaha office until Samuel’s death.

In 1910, Clifford Loftis, the other member of the “Bros.”, was arrested, but acquitted, in the murder of Joseph Lafferty in Bakersfield, California.  Lafferty had stopped Clifford from beating a horse, which resulted in a fistfight.  Clifford wasn’t satisfied with the result and brought a gun along to renew the discussion the next day.  The New York Times reported that Clifford, a cowhand at the time, had been sent west and left out of the diamond business “to get him away from the temptations of city life.”

Mark Twain wrote that the “last fad is ‘ghost – autographs.’ You write your name down the crease, then fold & press the paper while the ink is still wet & will blot. It generally makes something resembling a skeleton.” He had made one of his own in 1905 and sent it off to his daughter, Clara. The “fad” enjoyed a brief popularity at a time when autograph books were becoming passe. From the mid 19th century until the early 20th it was a friendly gesture to exchange or collect signatures in a little autograph book as a memento of friendships and other events. The mid-19th century also brought the fun artwork of “klecksographie,” popularized by the poet and artist Justinus Kerner. The “ghost signature” overlap of inkblot art and autograph exchanges wasn’t a lasting fad, but it held enough attraction to spawn custom hardbound books designed specifically for making ghost signatures, like the one owned by Samuel Loftis. At the height of the fad, around 1909, ghost autographs were solicited from presidents, dukes and dutchesses, and other celebrities.

In 1909, Samuel Loftis and his wife, Harmon — the company secretary — dissolved their marriage in a fit of hostility. Harmon cited abuse and neglect, stemming from Samuel publicly striking Harmon in the face at at the South Shore Country Club ballroom. Samuel responded by charging his wife with drunkenness and infidelity. The divorce was granted in 1912, and Harmon moved to California with a $125,000 check in her pocketbook.

Samuel T. A. Loftis

Samuel, free of the shackles of marriage, set himself on a path marked by wine, women, and song, and his multi-million-dollar diamond business allowed him to afford all the indiscretions his heart desired. The housekeeper of his Chicago apartment described dozens of women coming and going over the months he resided in the apartment, which would prove to be his final residence. On August 30th, 1920, a drunk Samuel Loftis brought a girl to his apartment, Miss Ruth Woods, the fiancee of a business partner. By the end of the night, the fiancee, furrier Roy Shayne, was at the apartment, and Loftis was dead from a blow to the head. Woods claims she called Shayne for help after Loftis fell and hit his head on the floor. The story the police believed was that Loftis had attempted to ravage Miss Woods by force; she summoned Shayne for assistance, and a liquor bottle to the head ended Loftis’ conquest. An inquest was held, both Woods and Shayne were questioned, and when the inquest ended on August 4th the death was ruled accidental, due to a fall. On August 8th, ten days after Loftis’ death, Shayne and Woods were married in Milwaukee, after receiving a special dispensation to waive the five-day waiting period on Wisconsin marriage licenses.

The original, complete wire story about Loftis’ death included many more details of Woods’ and Shayne’s testimonies, and more information about Loftis’ life. Whether due to sloppy editing or a taste for the bizarre, most newspapers cropped the story down to end just where my quote above finishes: Loftis died, and he had a book of ghost signatures. The sensationalism of the reporter who composed the original wire story appears to have attempted to tie together the reckless life of the Loftis clan to the occultism of the 1920s, and to start a much longer story with an attention-getting zinger. Reporters visited crime scenes, and the book probably caught the eye of a beat reporter looking for something interesting to punch up the article.  Loftis was probably just hip to the fads of the time, and used it as a conversation piece, collecting the autographs of friends and marveling at the mysterious shapes. Loftis’ actual life was far more sinister than the so-called “ghost book” of the news reports.

The poem the newspaper quoted from the forward of Loftis’ ghost book helps identify his book as The Ghosts of My Friends, the most common of the preprinted spirit autograph books from the first decade of the 20th century. The poem is by Gerald Villiers-Stuart, and appeared in his book The Soul of Croesus. Ghosts is attributed to Cecil Henland, who had made a name for herself by producing other books of the same format, with some front material and then blank pages for the purchaser to fill in, and in founding the National Society of Day-Nurseries. Henland married Lieut. Col. Arthur Percival at age 38 in 1907, but was widowed in World War I. Heland’s next most popular book was The Christmas Book, which included blank pages for people to write their wish-lists, and additional pages laid out to record the celebrations and events of the Christmas season.

The Ghosts of My Friends is somewhat common in online stores and websites, with the price varying quite wildly, but mostly sells for around $40. In 2009, a copy belonging to Fred Astaire, or someone in his family, was placed for auction and sold for several hundred dollars. Your Hidden Skeleton is less common and tends to bring a little higher price. People who own copies of either book tend to be rather proud of their ghost signatures, frequently posting samples online. If you’d like to make one of your own but without damaging an antique book, there is a company producing ghost autograph books similar to Cecil Henland’s, which can be purchased from Reflections of My Friends.

 

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Derek

Derek Dahlsad, husband of Deanna, is a collector of many things, with some expertise in coins and postage stamps. He also writes for the Prairie Public program "Dakota Datebook".

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