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How a Murderer from Italy Remade Himself as an American Renaissance Man

January 11, 2019 in History

By Greg Daugherty

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.

READ MORE: 6 Little-Known Pioneers of Aviation

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.

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 …read more


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