Meet David Nunes Carvalho, the Jewish Investigator Who Rivaled Sherlock Holmes

Brilliant Sleuth Followed a Trail Made of Ink

Elementary, My Dear Carvalho: The Jewish investigator contributed to the ultimate exoneration of Franco-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus.
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Elementary, My Dear Carvalho: The Jewish investigator contributed to the ultimate exoneration of Franco-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus.

By Harold Heft

Published April 01, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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David wrote to Madame Dreyfus and, months later, he was visited by two emissaries at his home near Bayswater, Long Island. They delivered examples of Dreyfus’s handwriting that helped David prepare a deposition that was returned to France and delivered to Dreyfus’s defenders, including Emile Zola.

It is through Claire’s memory of her conversation with her father, and not in the deposition itself, that we learn how he deduced that the document used to prosecute Dreyfus was a forgery committed by the true spy, Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy: “A particular feature of all of the writings of Captain Dreyfus was that all of his initial letters started from the base line and that the second letter is in general curiously raised above the line,” said David to his daughter. “I have learned by many years of experience that when a man tries to disguise his handwriting he tries to avoid the dominant and apparent characteristics of it.… if he attempts to imitate the handwriting of another he will look for these dominant and apparent characteristics and make them more intense. That is what Esterhazy has done.”

Most of David’s cases described in “Crimes in Ink” involved unfaithful spouses and disputed wills. Claire notes that “long before his career had passed its zenith my father estimated that he had affected the courts’ decision as to the ownership and possession of property aggregating over $200,000,000.” This amount, adjusted for more than 100 years of inflation, amounts to over $4.5 billion in today’s value. It is no wonder that David’s talents were in such high demand.

Like any great detective, David had his own Moriarty, a forgery artist named Charles Becker. The two had their face-to-face encounter after Becker was caught and imprisoned at San Quentin, and David traveled to visit him. Asked the secret of his success, Becker noted his “splendid set of teeth” used to make the paper for his forgeries; he “filled the perforations by chewing to a pulp paper of similar manufacture.”

Perhaps David Carvalho’s story has been forgotten because his esoteric science has lost its relevance in an era of digital communications. Even during his own lifetime, Claire saw him evolving and adjusting to new disciplines — such as fingerprint analyses and typewritten documents, to name only two.

Like the proverbial shoemaker with shoeless children, David left his own mystery at death. Claire’s story concludes with David’s children at his bedside, listening to his last word: “box.” They wondered if he meant that his will was stored in a secret safe deposit box. But no will was ever found and he never spoke again.

Harold Heft, Director of Research and Innovation at North York General Hospital, is the author of three books and numerous articles on Jewish culture and other topics.


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