An Ignoble Profession

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Not all of the most prolific Washington forgers labored in the obscurity of petty crime. Poor Italian immigrant Henry Woodhouse (originally Mario Terenzio Enrico Casalengo) arrived in America in 1905, but he soon went to jail after killing a fellow Italian immigrant (he claimed it was by accident). Upon release he learned to fly airplanes and became an aeronautical engineer, a career he translated into great wealth. He began collecting rare historical manuscripts in his spare time. He apparently started forging letters by Washington and others simply to make his own collection seem more impressive, but eventually he began selling the fakes as genuine. Though his work was clumsy, he was never caught. Only after his death in 1970 was Woodhouse exposed as one of the 20th century's most prolific forgers.

Modern-day criminals continue to sell forgeries by Spring, Cosey, Weisberg, and Woodhouse as the real things. Manuscript dealer Charles Hamilton once recognized a Cosey forgery of a draft of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson's handwriting. In 1969 Hamilton offered the item for sale in his auction catalogue, correctly describing it as a forgery. He sold it for $425. Six months later a Virginia college informed Hamilton that the purchaser had offered the forgery as genuine for $35,000.

The trade in historical manuscripts has become more lucrative than ever before, with documents written by the founders routinely selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes more. While major auction houses and manuscript dealers can usually be trusted to root out forgeries, the proliferation of online auction sites such as eBay has made it easier for cheats, and sometimes well-meaning individuals, to sell phony documents to amateur collectors. There is evidence that some 21st-century criminals are experimenting with new digital technologies for perpetrating fraud.

Throughout the history of George Washington forgeries, there have been two constants: Americans' continuing fascination with the Founding Father, and our substantial capacity for self-deception.