Helander: An Authorship Attribution Case

Bishop Dick Helander (1896-1978) was accused of writing a series
of a hundred-some anonymous libelous letters about other candidates to the electorate in the 1952 election campaign for the bishopric of Strängnäs. As it turned out, Helander won the election.

After being convicted of libel and other related matters in the local court the Svea Court of appeals in Stockholm (Svea hovrätt) on April 14, 1954, upheld the conviction and the Supreme court declined to take on the case later the same year. Instrumental in the conviction was a linguistic study of the letters compared to other specimena of the bishop’s, as well as a number of circumstantial matters involving access to typewriters etc etc. Among other things, the bishop was found to have taken a number of typewriters to have their types replaced at a workshop under a false name.

The linguistic evidence was of the form of frequency lists of stylistic items but was not explicitly based on statistical hypothesis testing methodology.

Helander was removed from the bishopric and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name in a series of books.

Helander, Dick. I domkyrkans skugga. Stockholm. 1955. 189 pp.

Helander, Dick. Oskyldigt dömd. Stockholm: Bonnier. 1957. 91 pp.

Seven years after the conviction, in 1961, the Supreme court decided to take up the case again. The conviction for libel was upheld but some other points of conviction were removed, and in 1964 Helander was officially reinstated – as the libel conviction was not judged serious enough to warrant dismissal from the post. However, by this time Helander was of retirement age and never again actually upheld the position as bishop. The linguistic evidence was again debated and held to be reliable enough although one of the justices, Hjalmar Karlgren, formulated a dissenting opinion on this matter. The results from this linguistic study were later published in

Johannisson, Ture 1973 Ett språkligt signalement Stockholm: Almquist & Wicksell 540 pp. Nordistica Gothoburgensia 6 (In Swedish, with an English summary)

In the seventies, Helander consulted more linguists to reexamine the letters. This resulted in a number of reports, a fair amount of dissent in the field of statistical linguistics, and some publications. The debate between the various opinions in the field are best summarized in some papers in

Text processing text analysis and generation – text typology and attribution. Proceedings of Nobel symposium 51 / ed. by Sture Allén Stockholm : Almqvist & Wiksell international 1982 653 pp. Data linguistica ; 16 Nobel symposium ; 51 ISBN: 91-22-00594-3

Namely Alvar Ellegård’s review of the attribution methodology, Hans Karlgren’s critical discussion of the fairly simplistic statistical methods and assumptions, and Ture Johannison’s rebuttal to the criticism.

Another reference:

Michaelson, Morton, and Hamilton-Smith 1979. Justice for Helander U of Edinburgh, Dept of CS Internal Report CSR 42-79

In 2002, a DNA test performed at the Rudbeck laboratory of Uppsala university of the sticky gum of the envelopes used to mail the letters has shown that Helander did not himself seal them and that he either is completely innocent of all charges or had an accessory.


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