Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Abraham Lincoln's Most Notorious Forgers

Joseph Cosey

Joseph Cosey
Joseph Cosey

Probably one of the most infamous forgers of the early 20th century was Joseph Cosey. His counterfeit documents and signatures of America's most prominent figures were so artfully created that experts had difficulty distinguishing authentic pieces from Cosey forgeries. In fact, many of the documents he forged are believed to be in circulation today, often regarded as genuine. Several of his most famous forgeries were documents allegedly to have been written by Abraham Lincoln.

Joseph Cosey was born Martin Coneely in February 1887, in Syracuse, New York. Although little is known about his youth, he managed to get into a great deal of trouble with the law starting at a young age. According to an article by Dorthy Twohig, Cosey served as a printer's apprentice before joining the U.S. Army at age 22. However, after serving four years in the army he was dishonorably discharged for assaulting another soldier. The incident was to mark the beginning of a criminal career that would span his adult life.

To make ends meet after the army, Cosey embarked on a life of thievery. Hamilton stated that at the age of 25, Cosey was imprisoned for six months for stealing a motorbike. He apparently had given the authorities the pseudonym Joe Hallaway during his arrest so the crime would not be linked to his true identity. Cosey continued to use a series of false names for similar objectives in subsequent arrests years later.

Between 1914 and 1916, Cosey was convicted several more times. The charges ranged from attempting to cash counterfeit checks to concealing a deadly weapon. His offenses resulted in his eventual imprisonment in California's San Quentin Prison. After serving a sentence of almost 10 years, he was finally paroled in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, prison failed to reform his devious behavior and in 1929 he began a career of forgery.

Twohig stated that the defining moment of Cosey's life was when he visited the Library of Congress and viewed a pay warrant dated from 1786, which was signed by Benjamin Franklin. He promptly stole the valuable object and spent days practicing Franklin's famous autograph and writing style. He became so adept at forging that he sold a series of his own handmade replicas to unsuspecting history buffs, collectors and manuscript dealers, usually for insignificant sums.

Cosey continued to profit by forging other historical figures' writing styles and signatures. In fact, his technique of emulating the script of famous personalities became so sophisticated, that it was difficult for handwriting experts to detect authentic documents from Cosey's imitations. Nonetheless, though it was a precarious source of revenue, it proved to be highly lucrative.

In addition to his Benjamin Franklin forgeries, Cosey also reproduced the signatures of numerous American legends, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Button Gwinnett, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. He also forged documents and signatures of other greats, including, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling.

Cosey's fake letter
Cosey's fake letter

Hamilton stated that Cosey often "whipped out his forgeries with great ease, never resorting to the amateur device of tracery." Yet, even though it was relatively easy for him to produce counterfeit signatures and documents, much of his success was attributed to the distinctive writing materials he used. Cosey was known to work with antiquated paper, dated writing implements and a specific brand of brown ink that was commonly used during the 18th century. Thus, his finished products were extraordinarily convincing.

Comparison with Lincoln's original letter
Comparison with Lincoln's original letter

Cosey was by all means a creative manufacturer of forgeries, yet not all of his reproductions and fabrications went unobserved. Some of the more skilled experts were able to find inaccuracies in his work. Those critical errors, which made Cosey's forgeries distinguishable from authentic historical manuscripts, eventually landed him in more legal trouble.

According to Hamilton, Cosey used a "timeless" style when forging; failing to recognize that writing ability decreases with age and usually becomes unsteady. Thus, many of his forgeries retained "an eternal youth" even though the subject of his forgeries should have been old and shaky at the time the document was supposed to have been written. Moreover, instead of always using real antiquated paper, Cosey treated contemporary paper with chemicals to give it an aged appearance. Hamilton further believes that there was evidence that Cosey used a pen with a steel "nib" when forging, which was not yet invented at the time many of the documents were alleged to have been drawn up.

Cosey made even more recognizable mistakes when he forged. For example, when comparing Abraham Lincoln's signature with Cosey's forgery, one can see a variation in writing technique. Hamilton noted that Cosey's counterfeit was written on "the same plane," whereas Lincoln's actual signature was written in a stepped-like fashion.

Cosey's (top) and Lincoln's (bottom) signature comparison's
Cosey's (top) and Lincoln's (bottom) signature comparison's

Cosey's luck with passing falsified documents was short-lived. In January 1937 he was arrested for selling a letter allegedly written by Lincoln to a stamp dealer. The document was labeled a fake after analysis confirmed that the authentic signature of Abraham Lincoln did not coincide with that in the forged document. After admitting his guilt, Cosey was sentenced to three years in prison. However, he was paroled after serving a little less than a year.

Following his release, Cosey continued to forge a living making counterfeit documents until his death in the early 1950's. To date, many of his documents are still in circulation and have gone undetected as fakes. Those documents that have been exposed as Cosey fabrications are considered highly valued and sought by collectors who appreciate the forger's unique genius.

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