History Stories

Aeronautics expert. Historian. Scientist. Economist. Henry Woodhouse passed himself off as all these and more. In reality, he was a con artist—and a convicted killer.

In retrospect, it seems odd that Henry Woodhouse got away with as much as he did for more than half a century. After all, it wasn’t every day that a paroled murderer with no discernible education became a darling of America’s burgeoning aviation elite—heralded as a renowned expert and author in an extensive Who’s Who in America biography. Nor does it compute that after being unmasked in that milieu, the same man would go undetected for decades as one of the boldest, most successful serial forgers of American history artifacts.

But Henry Woodhouse did. And as the world would eventually learn, if he was an expert at anything, it was self-invention. Much like his fictional contemporary Jay Gatsby, Woodhouse lived a rags-to-riches success story, complete with a made-up name and a murky criminal past. But unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character, Woodhouse didn’t just reinvent himself once. He did it repeatedly.

Also unlike the ill-fated Gatsby, he would mostly get away with it.

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Newspapers eagerly quote the sham expert

In 1918, as American fighter aces and their German foes battled in the skies over Europe, Woodhouse published what appeared to be the definitive book on aerial warfare. His Textbook of Military Aeronautics was a sequel of sorts to his Textbook of Naval Aeronautics, released the year before. In 1920 he’d follow up with a Textbook of Aerial Laws.

Already a well-known authority in the world of aviation, Woodhouse was a leader in the respected Aero Club of America and managing editor of its publication, Flying. Since 1910, he had written for many popular magazines and become a go-to source for newspaper reporters. The New York Times alone cited him in some 80 articles.

Pages from Henry Woodhouse's Textbook of Military Aeronautics, 1918.

Pages from Henry Woodhouse's Textbook of Military Aeronautics, 1918.

When the Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo in 1915, Woodhouse told reporters the tragedy could have been averted had the ship carried two seaplanes to scout ahead for submarines. In 1918 he proposed that the U.S. come to the rescue of its beleaguered allies by flying a “swarm” of 1,000 warplanes across the Atlantic to Europe—more than a year before British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown would make the first successful nonstop Atlantic crossing. In 1919 he predicted the world would soon see “a trans-Atlantic line of giant flying boats” for ferrying commercial passengers.

That same year, The American Magazine, a major periodical of the day, called him “probably as high an authority on aeronautical matters as can be found in this country,” adding that, “His advice has been sought repeatedly by government officials.”

Through savvy self-promotion Woodhouse had established himself not only as a technical expert but as a visionary. Trouble was, his aviation expertise seemed to have been pulled out of thin air.

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An old murder conviction comes to light

Woodhouse’s high-flying aviation career started spiraling downward in 1920, when donors to the Aero Club demanded to know how their money was being spent. In covering the case, The New York Evening Post discovered that Woodhouse, a member of the group’s board of governors, was a convicted killer.

It had happened in December 1904 when Woodhouse, then known as Henry Casalegno, was working as a cook at a hotel in Troy, New York. Casalegno and a fellow cook apparently quarreled over whether a kitchen window should be open or closed and the other man ended up dead, a 10-inch carving knife stuck in his heart. Casalegno fled the scene but was soon caught by police, suitcase in one hand, a mandolin in the other.

Casalegno claimed it was an accident, that the victim had lunged at him and stabbed himself. But the jury didn’t buy it. In March 1905 he was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree and sentenced to four years and two months in prison.

Further details about Casalegno’s past emerged, as well. It seems he was born in Turin, Italy, in either 1881 or 1884, as Mario Terenzio Enrico Casalegno, and immigrated to the United States in 1904. His prison stay had ended in April 1908, when he was released a year early for good behavior.

After his release, Casalegno continued to support himself as a cook, while writing on the side. H.L. Mencken, then a Baltimore newspaper editor, assigned him some freelance articles when Casalegno was working at a men’s club in that city, and recalled his writing as “done in very fair English.”

“In 1910 or thereabouts, this Casalegno went to New York, changed his name to Henry Woodhouse (a translation of the Italian original) and began to interest himself in aviation,” Mencken wrote in a later memoir. By the early 1920s, Mencken marveled, the former cook’s “biography in Who’s Who in America ran to nearly 75 lines.”

Henry Woodhouse, seventh from the left, seen on May 15, 1918 as one of the first regularly scheduled airmail flights in the United States took place.

Henry Woodhouse, seventh from the left, seen on May 15, 1918 as one of the first regularly scheduled airmail flights in the United States took place.

Indeed, Woodhouse’s entry (most likely self-written) listed numerous honors, appointments to important-sounding government commissions and memberships in several engineering societies—although there seems to be no evidence he’d even attended high school. It skipped any mention of a prison stretch.

Woodhouse’s gift for résumé inflation was matched by one for cozying up to, and often being photographed with, the famous and powerful. Among his acquaintances, he supposedly could count such A-list aviators as Orville Wright, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, as well as arctic explorers like Roald Amundsen and Admirals Richard E. Byrd and Robert E. Peary. Peary wrote an introduction for Woodhouse’s 1917 book, Aircraft of All Nations.

But Woodhouse was not without his critics. In 1920, C.G. Grey, the opinionated editor of a British aviation magazine, The Aeroplane, called him a “hot-air merchant” who had “printed more nonsense to the square inch about aviation than even the most popular writers on this unfortunate subject in this country.”

In 1922, Woodhouse broke with the Aero Club in a bitter legal dispute and, while he continued to hang around the aviation world for a number of years, he became increasingly marginalized. He dabbled in Middle Eastern oil investments and even played a cameo role in the Teapot Dome oil-lands leasing scandal that engulfed the Harding Administration back home.

Meanwhile, he was reinventing himself all over again.

The con man becomes a forger

Henry Woodhouse’s career faking documents and artifacts seems to have begun innocently enough. With what appears to have been a sincere interest in American history, he began buying artifacts, particularly ones associated with George Washington.

In January 1929, The New York Times reported that he’d acquired 11 surveying pegs that had belonged to Washington during his early days as a surveyor. The very next day, it said he’d discovered some 2,000 papers belonging to Washington, in a trunk passed down from the great man’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis. In April he seems to have bought Lewis’s collection of books; in August still another trunk of documents traced to a different Washington relative. 

In December, the Times reported, Woodhouse had tracked down and purchased Washington’s calico dressing gown, “worn by him up to and on the day of his death in 1799,” and “bearing three patches carefully and beautifully applied with the finest of stitching by Martha Washington.”

A trunk belonging to George Washington's only sister, Betty, containing upward of 2,000 original papers of George Washington's family and contemporaries that was brought to Washington by Henry Woodhouse. He is seen inspecting papers with William Tyler Page, Clerk of the House of Representatives and William Selden Washington, descendant of George Washington's brother.

A trunk belonging to George Washington's only sister, Betty, containing upward of 2,000 original papers of George Washington's family and contemporaries that was brought to Washington by Henry Woodhouse. He is seen inspecting papers with William Tyler Page, Clerk of the House of Representatives and William Selden Washington, descendant of George Washington's brother.

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By the 1930s, newspaper articles were referring to Woodhouse as a historian, an economist, a scientist, Dr. Woodhouse and even “Colonel” Woodhouse.

But simply collecting historical relics, authentic or dubious, wasn’t enough for Woodhouse. He was also busy churning out his own. The late author and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton even speculated that Woodhouse probably whittled those surveying pegs himself.

As Hamilton told the story, in his book Great Forgers and Famous Fakes, Woodhouse specialized in signers of the Declaration of Independence, and his “favorite ploy was to tack a fraudulent signature on a genuine old document,” such as “a worthless eighteenth-century deed.”

To promote his forgeries, Woodhouse displayed them, along with some authentic items, at a museum in downtown Manhattan and put them up for sale at Gimbels, then a major New York department store. For a time, he also had his own gallery in a fancy Manhattan hotel.

Meanwhile he had developed a second specialty related to his earlier incarnation. He began to forge the autographs of famous aviators and other dignitaries. Ironically, he was now faking the names of his own friends and acquaintances. Among them: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Alexander Graham Bell, Admiral Peary and Amelia Earhart.

“Woodhouse could have got their autographs. Easily. All he had to do was ask,” Hamilton wrote. “But he preferred to forge their names… He filled a big trunk with his contemporary fakes.” He became such a prolific forger that he eventually had to rent warehouse space to house his output, Hamilton notes.

While many historians and other experts suspected something was amiss with Woodhouse’s wares, he seems not to have been exposed as a forger during his lifetime. One reason may have been his rare persuasive powers; another may have been his fondness for filing lawsuits.

By the time of his death, apparently in 1970, he had faded into obscurity. But he left behind a colorful history over his nearly nine decades, plus a vast supply of forgeries—many of which are still out there somewhere, fooling new generations of the unwary and carrying on the legacy of Henry Woodhouse. 

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