Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters. By Ben Tarnoff. Penguin. $27.95.
When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously replied, “That’s where the money is.” But that’s not the only place. In his brilliant comic strip, Pogo, Walt Kelly once had Howland Owl and Churchy La Femme, the turtle, get into an argument after Howland decided that the best way to make money would be to…well, make money. Howland tells Churchy that they will make money; Churchy asks how; Howland says he told Churchy already – by making it; Churchy again insists on knowing how; Howland loudly proclaims that they will make it; fisticuffs ensue; and a good time is had by all.
But the funny pages and the quips of bank robbers belie the seriousness of “making money” if you are not authorized to do so – and also give no hint of the longstanding history of counterfeiting in the United States. That is the subject of Ben Tarnoff’s fascinating Moneymakers, which uses the lives of three notorious counterfeiters to explain the complex history of paper money in the U.S. In fact, all money in the U.S. has a history intertwined with wrongdoing. Ridged edges were developed for coins to prevent thieves from shaving plain edges just a bit, taking off some silver or gold to sell separately while still passing the coins for their full face value. And the phrase “not worth a plugged nickel” refers to thieves’ drilling a hole in a coin made from valuable metal and filling the hole with lead or something else of no value (there were plugged dimes and plugged quarters, too). But if you really want to go “where the money is,” you need to look at the many frauds perpetrated with paper money, which – after all – has no intrinsic value and is only as good as its backers say it is. Today, U.S. paper money contains numerous anti-counterfeiting elements and is backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States (whatever that means) – the days of being able to exchange silver certificates or gold certificates for actual metal are, by law, long gone. But in the early days of the nation, things were different – very different. It was in those days that a “moneymaker” (the old word for a counterfeiter) named Owen Sullivan (c. 1720-1756) thrived. Sullivan was a kind of Robin Hood figure who “endeared himself to the populace with his playful defiance of the authorities.” He was also an adept counterfeiter, at one point getting out of jail by creating a phony banknote plate from scratch during his prison term (using materials smuggled in) and then trading the plate for his freedom. Sullivan’s work was so good that, even after he was executed in 1756, others “continued passing his notes and printing money from his plates.” And Sullivan’s life became the stuff of what today would be called tabloid journalism, with leaflets published by enterprising printers and copies of his speech on the gallows gaining some popularity. Sullivan’s seven-year career was based on the colonies printing money to cover military and other expenses – a practice already opposed by some in government but soon to become more widespread during the French and Indian War.
Not much later was the career of David Lewis (1788-1820), another Robin Hood type – who operated in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, made spectacular jailbreaks of his own, and loudly protested the corruption of Eastern (that is, Philadelphia and New York) financial elites. Lewis operated at a time when the role of the federal government of the newly minted United States of America was very much in flux – and Tarnoff does an excellent job of interweaving the larger history of the nation with the individual stories of the “moneymakers.” While these small-time criminals were printing paper, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were arguing that the federal government could not charter a bank, “because its only powers were those specifically given by the Constitution; the states retained the rest.” But Alexander Hamilton insisted “that the federal government had the right to do whatever was necessary to govern effectively, so long as it wasn’t expressly forbidden by the Constitution.” This was one of the most important debates among the Founders, and one that continues today; and it is part of the background for the exploits of Lewis, which were publicized in such a way that “Lewis went from being an obscure criminal to a leading culprit in a counterfeiting epidemic sweeping the countryside.” Lewis was eventually hunted down, wounded by a posse, and captured alive, only to die of gangrene in jail – an ignominious end.
In some ways the most interesting story in Moneymakers takes place later in the nation’s history. Samuel Upham (1819-1885), labeled “The Patriot” by Tarnoff, was a Philadelphia shopkeeper who sold fake Confederate bills during the Civil War, supposedly as mementoes – but the well-made bills soon found their way south, in the hands of Union soldiers, and the flood of counterfeits helped undermine Southern states’ economies. Again, Tarnoff places Upham firmly in his time, discussing such milestones as the Legal Tender Act of 1861 (which established a national paper currency, despite the reservations of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase). Upham operated with the permission of the government when he was forging Southern currency – but that same government soon started tightening its control over Northern paper money. One instrument of that control was exceptionally corrupt: the Secret Service, revered now but reviled after its creation in July 1865 because of its illegal arrests, solicitations of bribery and distribution of the same counterfeit money it seized from moneymakers. All this is part of Tarnoff’s breezily written history, which concludes with a brief discussion of counterfeiting of U.S. money today. Interestingly, although actual counterfeiting has declined substantially in modern times, the allure of its use as a dramatic device remains. Back to Walt Kelly and Pogo: in one series of strips that was actually banned in parts of Canada and Japan, Kelly imagined then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban premier Fidel Castro conspiring to wreck the U.S. economy by producing counterfeits – not phony bills, but phony trading stamps, which were at the time a popular way for shoppers to obtain bonus merchandise after spending money at various stores. Thus transfigured, the legacy of Samuel Upham, David Lewis and Owen Sullivan entered the modern age.