Monday, December 20, 2010

The Literary Life of Joseph Cosey, Esq.

Joseph Cosey the Edgar Allan Poe forgerThe period of the 1920s-1950s was a Golden Age for Edgar Allan Poe-related "discoveries." During these years, many previously unknown letters and documents of the legendary poet surfaced for the first time. Unfortunately, a great deal of credit for these additions to Poe lore can be given to an astoundingly imaginative, talented, and energetic forger named Martin Coneely.

Coneely, who was born in 1887, is best known by his favorite alias of "Joseph Cosey." Little is known of his early life. He ran away from home at an early age, and henceforth led a solitary, nomadic life, supporting himself through a series of petty crimes. He apparently had no friends or family ties. Despite his shady and hardscrabble background, he was a highly intelligent man with an instinctive love for books and history--19th century Americana in particular. In other circumstances, he would have become a genuine scholar, but as it happened, his fate was instead not to merely study history, but to make it. Literally.

In the 1920s, he paid what proved to be a life-changing visit to the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. His motives in requesting to see signatures and documents belonging to such greats as Jefferson and Washington were entirely innocent--he merely wished to gratify his passion for Americana. However, once he was able to actually see and touch these priceless relics of the past, he felt he could not let them all go. Settling his desire upon a pay warrant signed by Benjamin Franklin in 1786, he slipped the paper into his pocket, and, in those more trusting times, left the library unnoticed.

A year or so later, he was living in a tenement in New York City, drunk, alone, and flat broke. Desperate for money, he steeled himself to sell his one prized possession--his stolen Franklin document. Upon taking it to a book dealer, however, he was stunned and indignant when the man scornfully rejected it as a forgery. In his disgust, Cosey resolved to teach this impertinent fool a lesson. He, himself, would create a real forgery and sell it to him! He haunted the local public libraries, studying facsimiles of the handwriting of historical figures. He found that Abraham Lincoln's signature came easiest to him, and after some months of practice, whipped out a handsome "Yrs. Truly, A. Lincoln" on a scrap of paper. The same dealer who dismissed his authentic Franklin bought the bogus Cosey for ten dollars.

It was an epiphany. Cosey, after a lifetime of aimless and unproductive wanderings, felt he had finally found his mission in life. He threw all his previously dissipated energies into his new calling, and he exceeded beyond all expectations. He became to manuscript forging what Tiffany's is to diamonds. G. William Bergquest, an expert on literary hoaxes, called him "the greatest forger of his kind in this century." The renowned book and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton went even further, describing Cosey as "the most skilled and versatile forger of all time." During his long and prolific career, he forged many items of Americana, particularly ones imitating the handwriting of Lincoln and George Washington.

Alas for Poe scholarship, Cosey also had a personal devotion to the author of "The Raven," which he expressed in his own singular manner. He also, for whatever reason, had a predilection for Poe's literary contemporary Nathaniel Parker Willis. He is known to have created more than one letter from Poe to Willis, and enjoyed adding forged notations by Willis to his "Poe manuscripts." Physically, they were impeccable pieces of work, but Cosey occasionally made several factual errors in the text. The errors were relatively minor--I've seen far worse in many Poe biographies--but they were enough to discredit the documents. Otherwise, the letters may well have been permanently accepted as genuine. In fact, Hamilton stated that all of the extant Poe/Willis correspondence has to at least be suspected as being Cosey's handiwork. (All this makes me very curious about a manuscript copy of Poe's poem "For Annie" which sold at auction not long ago for a cool $830,000, even though very limited information was given about the document's provenance. Among the distinguishing features of this artifact were notations added by none other than N.P. Willis.)

Cosey was considerably more ambitious than the typical forger. Not content merely with reproducing signatures or brief snippets of already-published texts, he did serious preliminary research on his subjects, enabling him to convincingly channel the literary style of Poe and his other favorite targets, churning out with unnerving speed and agility lengthy, interesting letters, artifacts such as account books and legal papers, and long samples of documents (including manuscripts of "The Poetic Principle," "The Raven," and "The Fall of the House of Usher.") His instinctive skill for replicating handwritings was coupled with the savvy to use genuinely antiquated paper and writing implements, including a distinctive brown ink specific to the 18th and early 19th centuries. He even became adept at forging letters of verification to accompany his creations. All this combined to make him a formidable menace to the world of manuscript collecting.

Cosey was also clever enough to take advantage of an odd quirk in the penal codes of New York (and a number of other states.) According to the law, merely forging any "archaeological object" was not in itself illegal. The crime occurred only when the owner of the "object" deliberately presented it for sale it as a genuine artifact. Cosey would merely diffidently present his documents to dealers or private collectors as objects of unknown value that he had "inherited," or "been given," or simply "found," and left it up to the prospective buyer to decide whether it was of any worth. Ironically, his seeming casualness about the documents served to enhance their plausibility. And if the forgery was detected, all he had to do was innocently state that he had never claimed the manuscripts were anything other than old pieces of paper.

Another thing that made Cosey notable was that, like many other great figures of his unusual profession, he saw himself as no mere criminal, but as an artist, a craftsman. He took great pride in his output, which he invested with a care that arose not merely from a desire to avoid exposure, but from a love of the work itself. He was, in the words of one of his parole officers, "a likable, ingratiating fraud." To paraphrase one of his favorite subjects, for him forgery was not a purpose, but a passion.

What is more, he convinced himself that he was actually doing a public service. After all, relatively few of even the most ardent Poe devotees have the money or opportunity to possess a letter or other document in his writing. Thanks to Joseph Cosey, many more of them would get that chance! He once told a story about going to a bookstore with a "Poe letter" he had created. "The owner was out," he said, "but his secretary told me she was a student of Poe and would be thrilled to see something in his handwriting. I finally sold it to her for three dollars, but only because I was broke. Well my conscience bothered me about it for weeks, and the first time I had three dollars I went back to the shop to tell her it was a counterfeit, and buy it back from her. But when I heard her talk about how much pleasure that letter had given her, I didn't have the heart to disillusion her. So I walked out and let her keep it and believe in it."

I'd like to know where that letter is now. And how often it has been quoted as source material in Poe biographies.

For all his natural gift for chicanery, Cosey did sometimes turn out product sufficiently flawed to be exposed by the experts. He often ignored the fact that a person's handwriting inevitably changes with age. A Cosey "Benjamin Franklin," for example, would have the same signature in old age that he had in his prime. He would occasionally cut corners by chemically treating modern paper to give it the appearance of age. Such mistakes led to his arrest in 1937, after he sold an "Abraham Lincoln" letter. It was dated "December 2, 1846." but, with uncharacteristic sloppiness Cosey wrote it on paper bearing a discernible 1860 watermark. (By this time, Cosey was not only an alcoholic, but a heroin addict, which undoubtedly affected his talents.) His victim was content to chalk it up to the hazards of the business, but after he heard Cosey was attempting to sell a similar letter to another dealer, the police were summoned. The detectives who brought him in for questioning immediately saw from the marks on his arms that he was a drug user, and evidently promised him a much-needed "fix" if he confessed. He did, and was convicted of petty larceny. He was paroled after less than a year, and he inevitably immediately went back to his life's work. He is believed to have kept up his cheerfully felonious ways right until his death, which is generally thought to have taken place around 1950, when he simply dropped out of sight. Some sources, however, believe he was still producing "artifacts" for some years afterwards. His end, appropriately enough for a Poe impersonator, is a mystery.

Thankfully, many documents have been exposed as his handiwork. (A fine example can be seen here.) Such is his reputation, that many of them have fetched high prices at auction as "Genuine Cosey Forgeries." A side industry even emerged of--seriously--forged "Cosey forgeries." The New York Public Library did him the dubious, if unmistakable, honor of setting up a permanent collection of his "Greatest Hits." (One of the founding items in this file was an assortment of notes Poe supposedly wrote in relation to the printing of "Tamerlane.") However, it is acknowledged that there are many, many more "Coseys" in circulation that have gone undetected. Early on in this blog, I posted a quote from Charles Hamilton (who made a particular study of Cosey's career.) "Long ago," he wrote, "I concluded that there must be far more forgeries of Poe by Cosey than there are original Poe letters."Scribblers and Scoundrels forgery and Edgar Allan PoeConsidering how many leading items of Poeana--items which largely have a sketchy or nonexistent history--first appeared during Cosey's prolific heyday, Hamilton's words should be memorized by any student of Poe's life. And it must be remembered that Joseph Cosey was hardly the first Poe forger, nor the last. Caveat emptor. And then some.