Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.
One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.
Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.
The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:
Do you know my sensations when I see the sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do, by comparing [them] with your [own] for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted] with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you [exchange] them my dear for any other worthy blessings? Is there any thing you would put in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of [unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable] in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love, and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent] [wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions] May [be] speedily [removed].
Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.
[h/t Library of Congress]