The Grinnell Missionaries - Stamp Collecting's Greatest Controversy

On December 1, 1919, George Grinnell, a high school teacher and stamp collector, sold 43 Hawaiian "Missionary" stamps to stamp dealer John Klemann for the princely sum of $65,000. That simple statement about the transaction is one of the few you will find in the story that is not the subject of contention. Within a few weeks Klemann returned with claims that the stamps were fake, and he promptly sued Grinnell for restitution. The case went to trial in June of 1922. The court ruled that the stamps were forgeries. That ruling might have been the end of the story, but instead it turned out to be the beginning of what is likely philately's longest running controversy. Grinnell would spend the rest of his life working to prove the stamps were legitimate, and after his death his heirs carried on with the quest.

Printed in 1851-52, Hawaiian Missionary stamps were the first stamp issue of the Kingdom of Hawaii. They are referred to as Missionary stamps because they were printed and used by missionaries living on the islands. The stamps were in three denominations: a 2-cent stamp paid the newspaper rate, a 5-cent stamp paid the rate for regular mail to the United States, and a 13-cent stamp paid the rate to the US East Coast.

The Missionaries were crudely printed, even for their time. They were made with handset type on a small printing press the missionaries had brought to the island. The designs consist of large numerals in the center indicating the denomination, which is also spelled out along the bottom. At the top are the words Hawaiian Postage, except for the second printing of the 13 cent stamp which reads H.I & U.S. Postage. The stamps also feature some standard printers' ornamentation devices and framing lines. They were printed with metallic blue ink on thin, fragile paper. The crudeness of the printing is significant to the Grinnell controversy as it means the stamps lack the security features, strict production controls, and record keeping on which philatelists generally rely when evaluating questionable items.

Authenticated copies of Hawaiian Missionaries are quite scarce. The most rare are the 2-cent newspaper stamps, presumably because they would be destroyed and thrown away in the process of opening the newspaper wrapper. There are 15 2-cent stamps known, 61 5-cent stamps, and 121 13-cent stamps.

According to Grinnell, he received the stamps from Charles Shattuck who told him that they had come from his mother. Grinnell did not know Shattuck, but paid him a visit after being given his name by a mutual acquaintance when visiting a Masonic lodge. As a lifetime stamp collector, Grinnell reported that he was in the habit of asking people if they had any old stamps or correspondence. He put the question to Shattuck and hit the jackpot.

Shattuck, who was elderly at the time of their meeting, died before the case went to trial and was therefore unable to corroborate Grinnell's story. Shattuck's widow and two adult children all testified, but their testimony went against Grinnell. Mrs. Shattuck remembered Grinnell's visit, but knew nothing of stamps or correspondence. The children said that all of their grandmother's belongings had been destroyed in a fire. Both children would later recant their testimony and say that they believed it possible and likely that the stamps had come from their grandmother.

In the many decades since the stamps were first judged as forgeries in a court of law, Grinnell's Missionaries have been among the most studied, documented, and opined upon scraps of paper in the hobby. Luminary philatelic journalists George Linn and Harry Lindquist both wrote about the controversy. Noted forgery expert Varro E. Tyler weighed in, and in an article published shortly after his death said he believed the stamps to be authentic. The Royal Philatelic Society in London has evaluated them twice, each time judging them to be forgeries. The stamps have also been subjected to a variety of invasive and non-invasive laboratory forensic testing. Today with mountains of evidence and passionate supporters for each side of the argument, we're no closer to a definitive answer on the authenticity of the stamps.

Nonetheless, an overview of some of the primary points of contention can be very instructive for beginning and experienced philatelists alike.

The Missionaries were printed by letterpress, using individual pieces of moveable type. At the 1922 trial there was extensive testimony given supporting the assertion that the Grinnell stamps were printed by photoengravure, a process not available until about 1870. Obviously anyone wishing to have the Grinnells accepted as genuine would have to refute this basic assertion. A key element of the argument for photoengravure says that the Grinnells exhibit overlap in design elements that would not be possible in letterpress printing but would be possible in photoengravure. A second element of the argument asserts that the Grinnells do not exhibit the natural variation one would expect in the Missionary printings where individual pieces of type would shift slightly in their settings. Challengers to the photoengravure argument say that the overlap seen in the Grinnells is consistent with letterpress setup and that such overlap can also be observed in those Missionaries that are accepted as genuine. Additionally, the challengers say that there is the kind of variation in the Grinnells that would be expected and observed in the authenticated Missionary stamps.

The inks used in the printing of the stamps and cancelations, as well as the paper of the stamps have been examined closely. As with the printing process itself, these examinations have focused on two questions: how similar are the inks and paper of the Grinnells to the authenticated Missionaries, and can the inks and paper be reasonably be dated to the 1851-52 time period. In dating the inks, particularly the blue ink of the stamps, researchers attempt to determine if the blue was derived from natural sources available in the 1850s such as indigo or lapis lazuli, or from one of the many synthetics that became available in the later part of the 19th century. In attempting to date the paper, researchers have focused on the presence of wood fibers. Paper made with wood pulp would not have been readily available until decades after the original stamps were in use. While modern examination of the inks seems to satisfactorily conclude that those used on the Grinnells would have been found in 1851-2, there remains controversy over the paper, with some test results showing wood content and others showing the paper to be free of wood.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the post-trial Grinnell story is the provenance of Shattuck's stamp horde. The idea of dozens of extremely rare Hawaiian stamps appearing by chance in the trunk of an elderly Massachusetts man strained the imagination in 1922. Judge John Perry Wood, who presided over the trial, observed "the story bears marks of improbability which makes it difficult for me to accept it." In the years following the trial and Shattuck's death, Grinnell was able to establish what appears to be a strong connection between Shattuck's mother Hannah Shattuck and missionary Ursula Emerson. According to Grinnell's research, both Hannah and Ursula were born in Nelson, New Hampshire in 1806 where they would have known each other. Ursula was reported to have corresponded throughout her adult life with her former townspeople who considered her a hero and role model. While the connection between Ursula and Hannah, if true, would not prove the stamps authentic, it would certainly remove the taint of wild improbability.

In addition to these highlights the areas of debate are vast. Experts have examined the nature of the postmarks, compared ships logs to the postal history of the stamps, speculated on the motivations of the various players in the drama, and even discussed at length the talents and equipment of the known forgers of the day.

Taken in total, the analysis of the Grinnell stamps makes for a remarkable study in the art of stamp expertization and forgery detection. It's possible that someday a combination of science and detective work will finally establish beyond any shadow of a doubt whether Grinnell's stamps are forgeries or one of the hobby's most remarkable finds. But it seems more likely at this point that the final chapter in this story will never be written and that the Grinnell Missionaries will remain forever a mystery.

Other Articles

Leipzig Fair Philately
For the better part of 1,000 years, merchants have gathered at the Leipzig Trade Fair to sell their wares. In modern times the Leipzig Fair (Leipziger Messe in German) has produced a wealth of philatelic collectibles including stamps, covers, collector cards, and cancels.

The Inverted Jenny - The World's Most Famous Stamp
There is no more iconic emblem of the stamp collecting hobby than the Inverted Jenny. The 1918 United States bi-color error features a blue Curtiss Jenny airplane, upside down in a red frame. The dramatic nature of the error and its storied history has left the Inverted Jenny as the world's most recognizable stamp.

Understanding Stamp Values
The subject of stamp valuation is a deceptively complex one. While at first glance, determining the value of a stamp might appear to be a simple matter of turning to one of the many available reference catalogues, in fact the stamp catalogue is just the beginning of the process. This overview presents some of the major topics in stamp valuation, setting you on course to making confident purchases and understanding the ultimate worth of your collection.

Introduction to Stamp Identification
Minor variations in collectible stamps can mean the difference between a common item and a great rarity. This introduction to the art and science of stamp identification provides an invaluable overview to the field covering such topics as finding your stamp in a catalogue, design variations, watermarks, printing methods and papers.