Sneaky 'Moneymakers' Saw Counterfeiting As Craft

Moneymakers by Ben Tarnoff
 
Moneymakers
By Ben Tarnoff
Hardcover, 384 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $27.95
Read An Excerpt

Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters is the conversational synthesis of its author's exhausting research. The book is Ben Tarnoff's first, and in it he has parsed through what must have been only intermittently charming primary sources. He's extracted the gold from the ore and presented it with narrative panache and an eye for fun historical facts.

While the book is decidedly scholarly, with specific historical characters and detailed tracings of centuries-old events, Tarnoff makes certain to peg his material to our currently constricted economy. Speaking of the Wall Street tycoons we blame for the 2008 recession, he writes, "These modern moneymakers probably don't realize they belong to an ancient American tradition."

Moneymakers focuses on three counterfeiters from American history: Owen Sullivan, a Colonial silversmith; David Lewis, a Pennsylvania prowler; and Samuel Curtis Upham, a California gold prospector cum Philadelphia shopkeeper. Tarnoff tells their stories with wit and enthusiasm, often urging us to imagine the speculative details of their lives by way of second-person narration. "The counterfeiters from America's past understood the power of confidence better than anyone," writes Tarnoff. "They manufactured money backed by nothing but belief, using craftsmanship and charisma to earn their victims' trust."

Author Ben Tarnoff was born in San Francisco and lives in New York. He graduated from Harvard University in 2007 and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Author Ben Tarnoff was born in San Francisco and lives in New York. He graduated from Harvard University in 2007 and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle. Mathea Falco hide caption

itoggle caption Mathea Falco

These counterfeiters, Tarnoff argues, saw themselves not as criminals, but as craftsmen — they had to hone the art of lead printing and etch their designs to convincing perfection. He schematizes their personality traits (impatient, impulsive) and unpacks key biographical facts, such as the choice to live in rural areas where test prints could be disposed of more inconspicuously.

Tarnoff shows restraint in quoting from his sources, which is a relief, considering their erratic historical syntax and obsolete diction. The specific documents he chooses to excerpt are humorously spelled and indiscriminately capitalized. Such documents are always a reminder of just how recently language, like currency itself, was regulated.

It wasn't until Lincoln's presidency, we learn, that a uniform currency was created in America, once the state-chartered banks that printed their own notes were phased out of existence: "By the time the federal government began regulating the money supply, there were more than ten thousand different kinds of notes circulating in the United States."

Amid protracted anecdotes and literary descriptions of old-time America, Tarnoff provides a real background in economic philosophy, listing the pros and cons of paper money and outlining the arguments for and against the theory that currency should be backed with not just faith but material worth. Money was not always the country's primary currency; in the past, it had taken more pragmatic forms — goods with inherent use-value, such as corn and tobacco.

"Counterfeiting," he writes, "gave enterprising Americans from the Colonial era onward a chance to get rich quick: to fulfill the promise of the American dream by making money, literally." Tarnoff does a great job at conflating — purposefully — the concepts of capital and capitol, and in so doing, he tells a distinctly American story, studded with facts that not only dazzle but recontextualize the current state of our economy.

Excerpt: 'Moneymakers'

Moneymakers by Ben Tarnoff
 
Moneymakers
By Ben Tarnoff
Hardcover, 384 pages
Penguin Press
List Price: $27.95

Introduction

On a November night in 1876, two men passed in silence under the granite obelisk that rose a hundred feet above the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Below the obelisk stood a statue of the slain president, the bronze silhouette glistening in the moonlight as the men moved swiftly by. Trying to make as little noise as possible, they entered Lincoln's burial chamber and approached the marble sarcophagus. The men drew their crowbars and, straining against the handles, managed to push the large tablet that covered the coffin over the side. Inside was the cedar casket that held Lincoln's corpse. Reaching into the sarcophagus, they began lifting the wooden box.

Suddenly a gunshot sounded outside. The men froze: the first shot was followed by another, then another, until the volley seemed to come from every direction. They dropped the casket and darted out of the tomb, fleeing the cemetery as bullets whistled past Lincoln's final resting place.

The men were caught several days later. They confessed to trying to kidnap Lincoln's body, which they planned to exchange for the freedom of their gang leader, a counterfeiter named Ben Boyd. The Secret Service, which had nabbed Boyd a year earlier, learned of the plan, and sent agents to lie in wait for the grave robbers. The officers sat watching the tomb for hours before the two men arrived. But before they could arrest the criminals, one of their pistols went off by accident. The others, thinking they were under attack, started firing wildly and the robbers escaped in a hail of bullets.

The irony of the scene was surely lost on the raiders of Lincoln's tomb. The robbers hoped to exchange a counterfeiter's freedom for the remains of a man who had done more than any other president in history to eliminate counterfeiting. Maybe they didn't know enough history to make the connection; the Secret Service agents lying in the bushes nearby certainly did. Before the war, state-chartered banks across the country printed notes of various designs and denominations, which made counterfeiting fairly easy. Under Lincoln, the government began phasing out these banks and creating a uniform national currency. A few months after Lincoln's death in 1865, the Secret Service was created to crack down on counterfeiters. Over the next several decades, the agency aggressively pursued its task, and by the end of the century, counterfeit cash amounted to just a slim fraction of the currency in circulation. The counterfeiters who flourished in the nation's infancy and adolescence would almost entirely disappear, victims of an unprecedented centralization of federal authority. The golden age of counterfeiting was over.

***

Few countries have had as rich a counterfeiting history as America. In the centuries before the Civil War, the absence of a strong central government, an anarchic economic system, and the irrepressibly entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens helped make the country a haven for counterfeiters. Counterfeiting gave enterprising Americans from the colonial era onward a chance to get rich quick: to fulfill the promise of the American dream by making money, literally. Stories of their rise and fall thrilled their contemporaries, who traded tales of these criminal adventurers in taverns and devoured the reports that appeared in the pages of local newspapers.

Although the memory of early America's moneymakers was preserved in local legends, by the twentieth century they would fade from public view, relics of an unrulier era in the nation's history.

American counterfeiters had an early advantage over their European counterparts for one crucial reason: the British colonies in North America were the first governments in the Western world to print paper currency. Paper notes appeared in response to the severe shortage of precious metals that was a persistent problem of colonial life. The British government limited the export of gold and silver to the colonies, and although an array of foreign coins circulated—pieces of eight, reals, doubloons, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin—there weren't enough to meet the demand. Colonists developed a range of different strategies to deal with the problem. Starting in the seventeenth century, American settlers tried using an Indian currency called wampum that consisted of beads of shell strung together on a thread, but widespread counterfeiting soon made it worthless. Since blue wampum was more valuable than white wampum, Indians often dyed their shells to sell them at a higher price, and diluted the threads with pieces of stone, bones, and glass. Colonists also tried using food commodities as money: in the seventeenth century, Massachusetts adopted corn as its official medium of exchange, and in Virginia, tobacco circulated as the common currency.

Coins would have been more convenient, but the paucity of precious metals in North America made coinage difficult. Unlike Latin America, whose gold and silver deposits provided the Spanish and the Portuguese with more than enough raw material to mint their currency, British settlers in the Atlantic colonies found little to work with. Even when colonists acquired precious metals through trade, the idea of a coined colonial currency met with opposition from home. Massachusetts began minting silver coins in 1652, but by 1684 the British government had ordered the colonists to stop, citing their violation of the royal right of coinage.

A growing colonial population and an expanding continental market demanded more credit, and with precious metals scarce and the home government hostile to coinage, paper money offered a solution. In 1690, the Massachusetts legislature started printing bills of credit to pay its debts. The authorities promised to retire the bills by levying future taxes payable in the new notes. But the colonists weren't concerned: relieved to have something resembling a functioning currency, they treated the notes like money, and Massachusetts kept the credit engine going by printing new issues to supersede the old ones.

The colonists had discovered a loophole in British regulations. Paper money didn't infringe on the home government's monopoly on coinage, and since the Massachusetts bills of credit were not redeemable by the British Crown, they weren't officially considered money. South Carolina started issuing bills of credit in 1703, followed by New Hampshire, Connecticut, and the remaining nine colonies over the next several decades. By 1764, the colonies had become so dependent on paper money that when the British Parliament passed legislation prohibiting bills of credit, it sparked an uproar, further souring relations between the colonists and their transatlantic rulers.

Excerpted from Moneymakers by Ben Tarnoff. Copyright 2011 by Ben Tarnoff. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.

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