An Ignoble Profession

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As the editor of the papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, I have the privilege of intersecting with many people who come bearing documents supposedly signed by the first president. More often than you might think, I have the unenviable task of informing them that their letter‚ often lovingly framed and passed down for decades in their family is a fake. An office file, which we've marked "Forgeries," overflows with dozens of similar examples. Individuals and families are not the only ones duped by what I've discovered has been a robust 150-year-old market in Washington forgeries. Recently a well-meaning alumnus sold a multipage letter apparently in Washington's handwriting to a major university library. The librarians placed the letter on display and trumpeted their acquisition to the media. Several months later, an astute visitor pointed out some strangely awkward flourishes in the letter's handwriting. Upon examination, the letter turned out to be the work of a prolific 19th-century forger.

In the process of amassing more than 135,000 Washington documents, Editor-in-Chief Edward Lengel and other archivists at the Papers of George Washington must remain vigilant against many hundreds of forged first-president correspondence dating back to the mid-18th century

In the process of amassing more than 135,000 Washington documents, Editor-in-Chief Edward Lengel and other archivists at the Papers of George Washington must remain vigilant against many hundreds of forged first-president correspondence dating back to the mid-18th century.

Just as high demand for popular consumer goods today inspires the production of cheap imitations to satisfy the market, the demand for Washington letters in the mid-19th century inspired the production of thousands of forgeries. Ironically, these fakes are now often collector's items in their own right.

While Washington himself could never have foreseen the emergence of this large, illegal market, he did express the desire that his letters be arranged and preserved. Unfortunately, his family successors at Mount Vernon in the early 19th century did not always honor that wish. They handed out Washington's letters as souvenirs. Visiting scholars took home sheaves of documents, many of which ended up lost or stolen. Thousands of letters that Washington wrote during his lifetime landed in small family collections. Many remain undiscovered to this day, tucked in attics, trunks, files, and library collections across the world.

In the early 19th century, Americans eager to own a piece of the great man's heritage could purchase his original letters in corner bookshops often for just a few dollars. As demand increased, the supply dried up. By the 1850s, casual collectors could no longer easily find or afford to purchase documents bearing Washington's signature. Criminals soon recognized an opportunity.

Like many villains throughout history, the British-born Robert Spring could turn on the charm. He immigrated to America as a young man in the 1850s, starting out as a Philadelphia bookseller. He quickly learned that success came by actively appealing to the interests of collectors. At some point he realized that true wealth lay in creating interest where it didn't already exist.

The clever bookseller purchased an armful of volumes that once had belonged to Washington, marked them up significantly, and sold them at a great profit. Pleased with the results, he pulled some dusty, 18th-century books from his back room and lied to customers that Washington had once owned them. They sold as fast as he could put them on display. Spring then began signing Washington's signature on the title pages of some old tomes that he had been trying to unload for years. Customers snatched them up.

If collectors would pay handsomely for books supposedly from Washington's library, and even more for items "signed" by their illustrious former owner, how much more might they part with for letters in Washington's handwriting? Spring had barely needed to convince customers that his items were genuine. Often a little play-acting—volume, then scrawl a letter in handwriting approximating Washington's. Staining the paper with coffee grounds completed the ruse. Spring later discovered a hoard of 18th-century paper that he used to concoct even more convincing forgeries. Sometimes he traced an original Washington letter, often omitting a paragraph or two so that it would fit onto a smaller piece of paper. After a little practice, Spring dispensed with tracing, churning out thousands of letters freehand on his one-man English accent and quietly magisterial personality, customers trusted him. But success soon bred arrogance. No longer bothering to word forged letters creatively, he produced the same documents over and over. One of his favorites was a military pass reading:

"Permission is granted to Mr. Smith with his negro man Tom, to pass and repass the picket at Ramapo.

"Go. Washington"

Spring changed the names on each forgery, but otherwise the content remained the same. A joke later spread that Washington awarded so many passes for the picket at Ramapo that he created the first important traffic jam in American history. Spring's proclivity for forging Washington's bank checks also led some to wonder if the founder had ended his life in bankruptcy.