- Historic Sites
An Ignoble Profession
The business of forging George Washington’s signature and correspondence to sell to unwitting buyers goes back 150 years
Fall 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 2
Spring took special delight in hood-winking so-called experts. One of these was a Philadelphia antiquarian book dealer named Moses Pollock, who prided himself on his "keen scent" for rare books and manuscripts. Before approaching Pollock, Spring studied his victim closely, learning of Pollock's deep pride in his Revolutionary War ancestors. In a backroom at his book shop, Spring cut a blank page from an old tome, dipped a goose quill pen in a special mixture replicating 18th-century ink, and wrote a military pass out to one of Pollock's ancestors.
After seasoning the document, Spring walked into Pollock's Commerce Street bookshop and presented the forged letter. After decades of business dealings, Pollock had trained himself to show little emotion or surprise when approached with a new document. But now he struggled to contain his excitement. "Where did you get this?" he demanded. Spring said he had found it in an old trunk. "How much?" Pollock asked. "To you, Mr. Pollock," Spring replied, "only $15." Pollock was stunned—he could buy a multipage Washington letter for that price—but Spring refused to negotiate, and Pollock paid him.
Many years later, Pollock showed the letter with some pride to the experienced collector Ferdinand Dreer, explaining that Robert Spring had sold it to him. After a glance, Dreer uttered the words that haunt manuscript dealers and collectors: "Mr. Pollock, you, of all men, should know better! This thing is an errant forgery—it's worth less than nothing!"
Spring's crime spree ended briefly in 1859, when a police detective arrested him in Philadelphia. Spring skipped bail and fled to Canada. While in exile he dabbled in mail fraud. Posing as an impoverished collector or a bereft widow struggling to sell her husband's estate, he mailed forged Washington letters to private collectors and asked for $10 or $15 in return. In the 1860s he crossed the border and settled in Baltimore. After the Civil War, he sent letters to British collectors, posing as Gen. Stonewall Jackson's daughter and trying to sell letters supposedly written by Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.
The authorities caught up with Spring for the final time in 1869. During his trial for forgery, he freely admitted his crimes but protested that he had, after all, made many people happy. How could their ignorance have hurt them? Even so, Spring vowed that he would "rather starve" than return to forgery. After his release from prison, he kept his word. He died in the charity ward of a Philadelphia hospital in 1876.
Spring's sad end did little to deter would-be followers. To the contrary, his early successes inspired them. The mischievous, antiauthoritarian Irishman Joseph Cosey became one of the most distinguished forgers of Washington documents in the 20th century. Born Martin Coneely in Syracuse, New York in 1887, he ran away from home at 17 and hired on as a printer's apprentice. He then joined the army but received a dishonorable discharge after beating up the company cook. A life of petty crime followed, including bouts in jail for passing forged checks. By 1929 he had spent nearly a decade in prison.
That year Cosey walked into the Library of Congress and asked to see a file of historical documents. A librarian cheerfully obliged. Cosey thumbed through them and then left, his pocket stuffed with a souvenir—a copy of a pay warrant signed by Benjamin Franklin. "It wasn't stealing, really," he reasoned, "because the Library of Congress belongs to the people and I'm one of the people."
A few days later he tried to sell the Franklin warrant to a book dealer on New York's Fourth Avenue. The dealer sneered at Cosey and told him it was a fake, which Cosey obviously knew wasn't true. Taking the rejection as a challenge, he spent several months studying the handwriting of major American historical figures so he could create convincing forgeries. He then returned to the same dealer and sold him a forged Abraham Lincoln document for $10.
Like Spring, Cosey cut endpapers out of old books and concocted a formula for "18th-century" ink. (He mixed dime-store ink with rusted iron filings to replicate the dark brown substance used in the 1700s.) But he didn't attempt elaborate schemes, and he usually avoided experienced collectors. He sold his forgeries dirt-cheap, often for no more than a dollar or two, to anyone who would buy them. He didn't expect to get rich; he just got a thrill conning people. He especially enjoyed seeing his creations work their way up to major auction houses, which then sold the fakes for huge sums of money. He didn't begrudge them the profit.
Cosey eventually slid into obscurity, ending his life in alcoholism and drug addiction. His mantle as the prime forger of George Washington documents was taken up by a small-time hoodlum named Charles Weisberg. While an honor student at the University of Pennsylvania, his passion for history and antiques inspired him to forge letters for fun. After graduating, he started furiously forging letters by numerous American statesmen. His favorite was Lincoln, but Weisberg also created a number of Washington items, including fake surveys of Mount Vernon, which he sold for a good profit.
Weisberg's carefully trimmed goatee and his penchant for expensive three-piece suits earned him the nickname "the Baron." After being caught several times for forgery and enduring a series of short prison terms, he adopted aliases to evade authorities. When one of his victims threatened him with prosecution, the Baron fired back: "Anytime you feel like 'taking a swat' at me, I am ready, ready with 225 lbs. of pretty desperate strength, seasoned for five years in as muscle-racking an existence [prison] as a man ever led." But jail was where he ended up; he died at Pennsylvania's Lewisburg Prison in 1945.