Bernie's John Hancock

What made Bernie do it? The court files now include his bizarre signature, which "graphologists" say reveals avarice, a lack of close connection to humans, and secrecy.

The Daily Beast Photo Illustration

God only knows how Bernie Madoff signed his Valentine’s Day cards.

If the John Hancock that Bernie put on his “statement of financial condition” under oath with the Securities & Exchange Commission is any indication, being illegible may have been integral to his strategy of being inscrutable.

When I looked closely for the third or fourth time at that Dec. 31, 2008, net worth statement that was made public in U.S. District Court, Bernie’s compressed signature finally jumped out at me from page 15.

So how does Ruth Madoff's signature stack up against, say, Paris Hilton? "Ruth projects sophistication... Paris actually lives off not hiding."

For those of us searching for any clues to Bernie’s behavior and his modus operandi, his demeanor in court has been less than revealing. When he pleaded guilty March 12, he displayed a recurrent eye twitch, while otherwise looking cool and sounding calm. His handwriting, however, is a different story. Never have I seen such disturbed penmanship. It is not that I have ever put much stock in the importance of handwriting, at least since I brought home a fourth-grade report card with A’s in nine subjects and an F for penmanship.

If Bernie’s signature seemed potentially revelatory, I also wondered about the signature of Ruth Alpern Madoff, Bernie’s high-school sweetheart and wife of almost a half-century. As I would later discover, Bernie’s penmanship was night and day compared with Ruth’s clear, firm, barely wavering hand. Surely Ruth saw Bernie’s scrawl on enough checks, but could she read a handwritten grocery list from him? Or did he only dictate money-laundering instructions?

So began my march through the annals of graphology, one of the high-sounding trade names for the alleged science of studying handwriting. We started by assembling—dare I say it—“The Daily Beast Madoff Signature Collection,” then showing it to some top handwriting pros. (They were all hungering for a full Bernie handwriting sample, which alas I have not yet obtained.)

The Internet is full of these experts who say they make a living analyzing potential employees or lovers for integrity and emotional makeup. Call it the squishy side of “due diligence.” There are warring schools of thought among the graphologists—the Gestalt practitioners versus those who say they are more objective and scientific. It is big in France, where corporations routinely ask for handwritten work from prospective employees.

Indeed, Sheila Kurtz of Graphology Consulting Group says that for four years or so, her firm analyzed handwriting samples from prospective employees for Access International Advisors, the investment firm in New York and Paris run in the United States by Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, the French banker who committed suicide two days before Christmas last year after discovering that his firm had lost more than $1.4 billion investing in Madoff.

Of Thierry, Kurtz dropped this bombshell: “The only handwriting he didn’t give to us was Bernie Madoff’s.” She continued, “If I saw a signature and it looked like that, illegible, I would say: Beware.”

As far as I can tell from the handwriting experts I consulted, they agree on a few basics. First, the analysis should break apart the signature along three horizontal lines that establish the top, middle, and bottom. And second, a signature like Bernie’s that is essentially illegible establishes almost without doubt that a person has something to hide and may have severe emotional problems.

“I would say he was seriously abused as a child because he has such trauma. The leftward leaning, backward strokes are an emotional withdrawn tendency, a lack of emotional connection with humans,” says Bart Baggett, a personality profiler and forensic document examiner in California whose websites include

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I followed that line of inquiry to Arlyn Imberman, a graphologist and co-author of Signature for Success, How to Analyze Handwriting and Improve Your Career, Your Relationships and Your Life (Quill Driver Books). Her book contains analysis of some bad guys, including former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, and a fascinating segment on the deterioration over time of Richard Nixon’s handwriting as the weight of the presidency and Watergate crushed him.

Well, it turns out Arlyn has been analyzing two of Bernie’s hard-to-come-by signatures since January and is preparing for her first public analysis of Madoff’s signatures for a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, this Thursday.

Imberman says: “The only legible letter is the first one, ‘B’ in Bernard. Both the ‘d’ in ‘Bernard’ and the ‘d’ in Madoff are completely opaque, which means the writer does not wish to be transparent.” She continues: “There is no middle zone in the writing, which represents one’s ego and sense of self. Yet, there is an overall modesty to the signature; it does not take up much space and there is neither pomposity nor embellishment, which shows that he operates in a low-key way, under the radar… The extension of the ‘B’ in Bernard and the stroke of the ‘f’ in Madoff resemble a claw and can be interpreted as a sign of grasping and avarice.”

To drill even deeper, with the help of interns Stephen Brown, Nash Landesman, and Isabel Wilkinson, The Daily Beast dug up earlier exemplars of Bernie’s official scrawl. We looked at his signature on an “assignment of lease” he and his wife Ruth attested before a notary public on March 13, 1996. That document was file-stamped as received Sept. 19, 1996, by the Palm Beach County Clerk’s office, which also provided five more recent documents.

To square the circle, we also examined papers presumably signed under more stress: the bail-package documents Bernie executed in New York City Dec. 11, 2008, the day he was arrested and charged with one count of securities fraud in federal court. Ruth and Peter Madoff, his brother and his firm’s chief compliance officer, signed on Dec. 17.

On the 1996 document, Bernie’s signature—while not decipherable to the average eye—appears expansive, with a flamboyant tail running off the page. His hard lines and angles project the arrogance of a confidence man, or as Arlyn Imberman puts it, “a steamroller.” Perhaps it is the bigger-than-average space available to sign, but both Bernie and Ruth’s signatures seem more relaxed and larger than they do in later samples.

Ruth’s remains remarkably consistent for a person who many believe must also have known what was going on at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities for a long, long time.

“He needed Ruth because she was the yin to his yang,” says Baggett.

“With Ruth,” says Kurtz, “you can read it, so you can read her. … The double ‘M’ shows she can be diplomatic and seems to worry a lot.”

“With Ruth,” says Kurtz, “you can read it, so you can read her. … The double ‘M’ shows she can be diplomatic and seems to worry a lot.”

Those worries are manifested, says Imberman, when you compare Ruth’s earlier signatures with the ones from December 2008, after Bernie was arrested. Imberman and others point to the squashing of her two “f’s” on Madoff in the most recent signings. “She is clearly much more anxious and disturbed than she was in 2005,” says Imberman.

Without exception, the experts say, Mrs. Madoff writes with her ‘R’ dangling down, followed with the ‘ff’ on Madoff consistently dropping below the signature line.

So how does Ruth stack up against, say, Paris Hilton? Susanne Shapiro of, another California outfit, says: “Ruth projects sophistication… She is no shrinking violet. She is a firm lady. Ruth Madoff is very friendly but you probably would not be able to tell what goes on for real.” Paris Hilton’s handwriting is juvenile and adored with hearts and symbols for hugs and kisses. Compared with Ruth, Shapiro says, “Paris actually lives off not hiding.”

“If you look at the first letter—the R, does it remind you of something? How about a dollar sign?” says Shapiro. “It doesn’t mean too much except she is probably obsessed with money.”

If the rumor is true that among the alleged close friends he fleeced, Madoff spared only his cardiologist, then maybe a holiday card adored with hearts from Bernie might have been appropriate.

Allan Dodds Frank is a business investigative correspondent who specializes in white collar crime.