In A Nutshell
Own any 18th- or 19th-century autographs? Perhaps a letter written by Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin? Well, you might want to let a professional check those out. They just might be counterfeits courtesy of Joseph Cosey, one of the most notorious (and talented) forgers in American history. But he wasn’t in it for the money, despite his skill. He just liked tricking people.
The Whole Bushel
Joseph Cosey loved American history. Whenever he showed up in a new town, he made a beeline for the local library and grabbed as many history books as he could find. The man was fascinated with famous figures like Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. So when he visited the Library of Congress in 1929, he spent two hours poring over manuscripts by his historical heroes. But right before Cosey walked out the door, he stuffed a pay warrant signed by Franklin into his pocket.
“It wasn’t stealing, really,” Cosey said, “because the Library of Congress belongs to the people, and I’m one of the people.”
Born in Syracuse in 1887, Cosey’s real name was Martin Coneely. After leaving home at 17, he rambled around the country working as a printer’s apprentice until he joined the military at 22. Only his stint with the Army didn’t end well, and he was dishonorably discharged for attacking a cook. Unemployed, Cosey turned to a life of crime, but he wasn’t a good crook—not at first anyway.
Using multiple aliases (Cosey being his favorite), the man stole a motorcycle, forged checks, made off with $30,000 in negotiable bonds, and always ended up in prison. Cosey spent nearly 10 years inside San Quentin, but whenever he could, he’d steal away to the prison library and brush up on his history.
Eventually, Cosey was paroled, and shortly after, he ended up with Benjamin Franklin’s signature in his pocket. Cosey didn’t know at the time, but his D.C. trip was one of those moments that changed everything. A year later, drunk and destitute, Cosey decided to sell his prized possession for drinking money. Only when he visited a New York autograph dealer, the man suspected the warrant was a forgery and refused to buy it.
Furious, Cosey vowed revenge. Over the next few months, he dedicated himself to analyzing famous signatures. He quickly developed a talent for emulating Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting, and after hours of practice, he forged Honest Abe’s name and sold it to the very same dealer for $10. It was his first success at archaeological forgery. It wouldn’t be his last.
Over the next few decades, Cosey became one of the great all-time forgers. He faked letters by Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt. But he didn’t just dabble in politics. Cosey copied manuscripts by Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, William Blake, and the list goes on. Basically, the dude majorly screwed the autograph market.
Cosey was also something of a counterfeit artist. He made his own ink with rust filings to mimic ink used in the 18th century, and he’d cut blank pages out of old books so the paper was authentic. Before he started working, he spent days reviewing material. When it was finally time to write, he usually copied existing documents, but sometimes he’d improvise. Whenever he felt the urge to create, Cosey had to be extra careful. Not only did he have to slant Lincoln’s letters just so, he had to know which expressions the President would use. Cosey had to look and sound absolutely authentic.
Cosey also knew how to manipulate loopholes. According to the New York State Penal Code, it was against the law to represent a forgery as “an original and genuine archeological specimen, with intent to deceive.” So what Cosey did was pretty clever. He told potential buyers—usually big-time autograph collectors or buyers for prestigious auction houses—that he inherited the document or found it in a box, and he didn’t know if it was worth anything. That’s when he’d ask, “What do ‘you’ think it’s worth?”
If the expert suspected a forgery, Cosey was in the clear. After all, he hadn’t said it was genuine so no one could prosecute him. However, more often than not, the specialists were totally duped. But Cosey never made much from his work. He always let the buyer put a price on his work, and usually, Cosey only earned $5–10. For Joseph Cosey, it wasn’t about the money. It was about conning the experts.
Of course, Cosey did get sloppy from time to time. Occasionally, he’d buy normal paper and try to age it with chemicals. One of his biggest mistakes was forgetting that handwriting changes as a person grows older. So when he wrote letters by an elderly Ben Franklin, he’d use neat, clean handwriting when it should’ve been shaky and uneven. But his biggest mistake came in 1937. At the time, Cosey was a heroin junkie, and perhaps he wasn’t thinking clearly when he claimed to own a genuine Abraham Lincoln letter. When the con was discovered, Cosey was shipped off to prison where he served less than a year behind bars.
A free man, Cosey went right back to his old ways, but in the 1950s, the forgeries stopped. No one is exactly sure what happened to Joseph Cosey. The man vanished, but his work lives on. Experts believe there are still Cosey forgeries in circulation, and in an odd twist of fate, his fakes have become valuable themselves. Genuine Cosey counterfeits are sought after by collectors, and the New York Public Library has four whole boxes full of his forgeries.