Book Review: A Counterfeiter's Paradise

Quite an interesting book on counterfeiting activities prior and during the Civil War.

I enjoyed reading this dive into various get-rich-quick schemes of early America by Ben Tarnoff, though I thought I’d enjoy it more. The work is well-researched, and it shows throughout the text. However, the reader doesn’t have as much fun as one would expect. These are really interesting schemes, in a land without much regulation in terms of currency production. It’s the story of a rising nation in its teenage years, feeling around for proper monetary policy. However, the expectations between the reader and the author seem to be a bit off. As a reader I was expecting to hear a narrative for each of the bad actors discussed, possibly discussing how they disguised their operations, distributed their wares, evaded capture, etc. While those topics are breached, it’s a bit more serious than what I expected.

The author almost uses the characters as backdrops to the growing tension between the hard money advocates (a position often taken up by the political class, the merchants, and the wealthy) and the paper advocates (the middle and lower classes, farmers, laborers, etc.). Tarnoff draws a comparison between official printing of money by the US government and the work of the counterfeiters - weren’t they both doing the same thing, creating value from paper money? At one point, in referencing reaction to the Bank War during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Tarnoff writes: “Branding the president and his advisers moneymakers might seem like just another salvo in the Bank War, but it wasn’t far from the truth. By destroying the Bank, they had done more to inundate the nation with worthless paper than even the most prolific counterfeiting operation . . . state banks could now print bills without bothering to redeem them.”

While Tarnoff offered an interesting perspective and deep historical context for the events the focus of the text was a bit different than I had expected, spending less time on stars of the counterfeiting and more on the circumstances that indirectly spurred their actions. Maybe it’s because the motivation behind these players beyond pure greed cannot be explained without the complete context of the world in which they exist. Maybe it’s to offer evidence as to why these characters were often regarded as folk heroes, as they often represented a common man working against the interests of the elites. Either way, certainly interesting and informative - however, not what I necessarily signed up for when beginning this text.

A side note - I originally discovered this book through the excellent Uncivil podcast produced by Gimlet Media, specifically the episode The Paper.

Some interesting notes about the primary counterfeiters discussed:

Owen Sullivan

  • Precious metal currency favored by elite and rich. Stability of prices. Inflation of paper money scared creditors.
  • Paper money was favored by middle and lower class - allowed them to pay off debts and have currency change hands
  • Thomas Hutchinson hoped to rid Massachusetts of paper money in a few years, but due to the French and Indian war and other military conflicts, paper money had to be raised to finance the war. There were 9 different variations put out by the massachusetts government
  • Owen Sullivan was an indentured servant due to his trip across the atlantic to the US in 1742. He ran away from home in Ireland
  • Conditions on these voyages were horrendous. This passage about Sullivan is quite interesting:
    • “[he] often went hungry during his none-week passage. In exchange for adding three more years to his indenture, he would be allowd to east as many biscuits - bread designed to survive long sea voyages-as he could in the span of ninety minutes, as timed by the ships hourglass. The skipper burst into laughter when he heard Sullivan’s offer. He agreed to it on one condition: the Irishman couldn’t have any water for the hour and a half he was eating. The captain upended the hourglass andSullivan stuffed the biscuits into his mouth, the parched bread ground down to a semi-edible paste of flur and saliva by his teeth before being forced down to his throar. A few dozen biscuits were worth this little piece of sadistic entertainment, the captain figured, even if he lost some servants to starvation as a result.”
  • As part of his indentured servitude, studied silversmithing, which would help in his counterfeitting ordeals. His military time was spent assulting the French-occupied fort Louisbourg.
  • Was first caught when he was drunkenly arguing with his wife in the North End of Boston. She yelled that he was a counterfeiter (“You forty-thousand-pound moneymaker”), which local authorities than checked out and found counterfeit bills and printing materials. He was held in the bottom of the Old State House when arrested.
  • 1749 moved to Providence to restart his counterfeiting ways. In 1752 he was outed by a man in his gang fearing punishment. He was able to avoid the ear cropping usually done to severe criminals, yet the partner who had turned themself in received a red-hot brand in the shape of the letter R on his cheeks as well as cropping both ears. Sullivan, during the public punishment, was able to break free and seize a cutlass while his partner was punished. He then lept into the crowd and escaped in broad daylight. He had a knack for showmanship, and this season vaulted his presence among the colonies to be a well-loved criminal.
  • Sullivan took up residence on the border of NY and CT, as it was contested between the two colonies so unlikely to see authoritative presence there. Here he started the Dover Money Club. He also spent time near the Merrimack River in New Hampshire.
  • Would meet and entice Robert Rogers into his counterfeiting group. Rogers was a frontier man. Rogers was eventually arrested for his ties to Sullivan in 1755, but he was able to leverage his ability to recruit men to the military as well as his aptitude in the Northeastwern wilderness. Because this was the start of the French and Indian war, and the British began to lose the first few battles, this was highly useful. Rogers went on to form Roger’s Rangers, which were very successful militarily. He almost made many tactical innovations. “Today’s U.S. Army Rangers consider Rogers their forefather and require ecruits to read his ‘rules of ranging’.”
  • What was interesting is the political context in which the counterfeitting took place. Because it added to the paper money in circulation, and working against the British-backed government of Hutchinson portrayed Sullivan as a folk hero - a blue collar worker sticking it to the man

David Lewis

  • Early 1800’s
  • Invasion of US soil by British soldiers caused a run on Chesapeake banks
  • time around 1812 involved skyrocketing us of notes - from 1811 to 1815 the value of notes in circulation almost doubled from $66 million to $115 million
  • Difference between Owen Sullivan and David Lewis - the amount of different currencies used to trade. “Banknote reporters” would publish books with various forms of currencies used by towns, local banks, national institutions, etc.
  • Lewis took advantage of the rising populist sentiment and his charisma to mold his story into one of a folk hero. Americans lashed out at the Second Bank of the United States as they tried to rein in the state banks and ensure they paid their outstanding balances. This was the Panic of 1819, in which many banks went bankrupt, cash became scare, interest rates roses, prices fell dramatically, and in the midwest the Panic essentially wiped out the money supply.
  • A great Lewis story:
    • “Lewis came to the home of a destitute widow She didn’t have a single dollar to pay her rent, the woman confessed, so the constable would soon seize her cow, her last means of support. . . . Lewis asked how much she owed, promptly handed over the exact amount, and then id nearby. When the official arrived, the widow offered up the money and, satisfied, he continued on his way until Lewis appeared in his path and put a gun in his face. The robber retrieved the bills he lent the widow along with the rest of the cash the constable had on him, making a nice profit.”
  • Lewis’ stories also helped sell newspapers. He was the Robin Hood to American Capitalism. So, newspapers constantly wrote about him to help boost sales.
  • Lewis broke out of jail at least three times. Was used as a political pawn against William Findlay, the current Pennsylvania governor for his mishandling of the prisoner
  • Lewis was eventually captured by a band of lawful citizens. A newspaper editor prints what is almost certainly a fake memoir supposedly written by Lewis, which berates Findlay the governor and other political players

Samuel Curtis Upham

  • Discussed in Gimlet Media’s Uncivil
  • Went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, leaving behind a wife and children from a year or two
  • Patriarch of the family, John Upham, sailed across the Atlantic fifteen years after the Mayflower
  • Quote about traveling to San Fran - “escriptions of a ‘life on the ocean wave’ read very prettily on shore but the reality of a sea voyage speedily dispels the romance.”
  • William Patrick Wood, a prison superintendent who had a penchant for capturing counterfeiters, would become chief of the U.S. Secret Service, which was created to relieve the nation of counterfeiting operations
    • One of the first uses of informants after capturing a lower-ranking criminal