This week I am wrapping up my Secret Service series with a look at the other side, counterfeiting in the late 1800’s. While there is a lot more information to share, I just broke the counterfeiting scheme down to five basic steps with tidbits of extra information. Enjoy, and don’t get into too much trouble!
For unfamiliar terms, please visit last week’s post: Secret Service Dictionary and Fun Facts
The Process of a Counterfeiting Scheme:
Step One: Engrave plates for use on printing presses.
- Engravers were particularly scarce; those who did succumb to thievery had to serve many masters and lived rather hectic lives.
- Engravers earned between twenty to forty dollars a week and worked nearly a year to finish a set of plates.
- There was a market for used plates. A good set of plates could be sold for between several hundred and two thousand dollars.
Step Two: Print the Money
- Like the manufacturers of legal merchandise, criminals needed to consider opportunity, risk, demand, price, and quality before investing their capital, time, skills, and organizational talent in the business.
- The effort, time, and money (several thousand dollars) needed to produce an issue put the manufacturing of counterfeit notes beyond the resources of a single individual.
- Plates belonged to one partner – either because he had provided the money to have them made or because he took them as part of his share in the proceedings.
- Manufacturers used areas where there were a large number of supply stores clustered in the area to sell paper, type, ink, and various kinds of presses, which were the raw materials of counterfeiting.
- Knowledge and techniques were transmitted orally and perfected by practical experience in saloons. Counterfeiter’s reliance on an oral culture and on personal relationships effectively shielded them from the police.
- A firm could print between ten thousand and twelve thousand dollars a month.
Step Three: Sell to a Wholesaler
- The wholesaler was the key figure in the distribution process. If the wholesaler was a member of the production firm, he had direct access to the product without any additional costs beyond his original investments in the partnership.
- The whole seller sold product to dealers/retailers.
Step Four: Sell to a Dealer/Retailer
- There were two types of dealers: (1) Thieves who bought counterfeits to pass on unsuspecting merchants or (2) Merchants who were willing to cheat their customers by giving them counterfeit money in change.
- Dealers created customer lists, which they jealously guarded from their competitors. Their customers regularly wrote to the retailers or left messages at the saloons that retailers visited.
Step Five: Shove the Money – (A.K.A. Put counterfeit notes into circulation.)
- Shovers usually operated in small groups of two or three. One shover entered a shop, made a small purchase, and received genuine money in change. While the shover was transacting business, a companion remained outside to watch for the police and to make sure that the shover was not followed by the store keeper, who might have discovered the counterfeit.
- After each transaction, they placed the proceeds in a separate pocket or envelope, so that their associates would be able to trace the precise amounts each shover collected.
- Then the group returned to their meeting place and divided the proceeds.
The Price of Counterfeiting:
The price of counterfeit bills fluctuated based on their quality and lack of public awareness. New notes were easy to pass and thus sold for more money, generally between thirty and seventy cents. The better the counterfeit quality, the better the price.
As soon as a new counterfeit’s existence became widely known, dealers had to lower the prices to compensate their customers for the increased risk. Discounted notes sold for between eighteen and twenty-two cents on the dollar.
Just as any career has its own jargon, so did the counterfeiting world and the Secret Service. Below are a few of the most important terms to know. Below that are a few fun facts about the Secret Service.
Secret Service and Counterfeiting Dictionary
- Boodle – notes bought from a production firmBoodle carrier – a courier who delivered counterfeit notes from the dealer to the shovers.
Chief Operative – first-class men assigned to the division’s major districts, each chief operative would have assistant operatives working under his direction, and would be responsible for all administrative and investigative activities within his district.
Dealers – people who bought the counterfeit notes from wholesalers and then used shovers to distribute the money into general circulation
Distribution – the spread of counterfeit money through an underground sales network
Engraver – the person who created the plates used to print money
Firm – the collective group of people used to print money
Issue – an edition of a set of counterfeit bills
Manufacturer – a person or group of people who printed counterfeit money
Network – the sum of one’s personal acquaintances (which included non-criminals).
Notes – another term for paper money
Operative – the official title of the Service’s employees
Plant – a term used to reference where counterfeiters made their money
Plates – metal pieces with copied images from the bill being counterfeited
Product – another name used for counterfeit money, generally used by the counterfeiters
Production Firm – the collective group of people used to print money
Queer – another term for counterfeit money
Retailer – another term for a dealer
Shover – a person who bought low priced items with a higher counterfeit bill to get real money back in change
Straw bail – a situation in which a false bondsman was contracted to swear they possessed sufficient property to pay the bond, and then the counterfeiter would subsequently fail to appear in court
Wholesalers – men or women who would buy counterfeit notes from manufacturers and then recruit potential customers through personal contacts or the mail to create a sales network
Fun Facts about the Secret Service
- D.C. was the Service’s bureaucratic headquarters and the chief lived there
- Between 1875 and 1910, the division never employed more than 47 men, and the average was only 25. 1878-1893, the average number of servicemen was well below that.
- Chief operatives often had several cases under investigation at once and had testy battles with headquarters over conflicting demands for economy and results
- Each chief operative maintained a retinue of assistants and informers
- Each district contained a number of states and a single operative maintained a headquarter in a major city
- There were field offices in 11 cities across the nation.
- Operatives were paid once a month on a daily scale, an average of $7 per day.
- Each work day ranged from 12 to 16 hours long.
- There were no days off and any “vacation” time was unpaid.
- Operatives were required to itemize all their expenses for everything from travel to personal needs.
- Operatives were to maintain peak physical fitness, swear unquestioning obedience to chief’s directives
- In 1881, all toy money was removed from shelves and industries.
- While time-consuming, the work was not particularly dangerous (no Service employee was seriously hurt in the line of duty until the murder of an operative in 1908).
It has been a while since I posted a Throwback Thursday, but as I am getting ready to dive back into my hero’s plot, I thought it would be fun to start a series titled “To Catch a Counterfeiter”. If would like to read a brief introduction to the Secret Service, click here.
Do you think you have what it takes to bring down a criminal ring of counterfeiters in the mid to late 1800’s? The challenges were immense and the resources limited.
The Secret Service was a federal organization, meaning their jurisdiction spread across the entire country. However, between 1875 and 1910, the division never employed more than 47 men, and the average was only 25. And between 1878 – 1893 when my story takes place, the average number of servicemen was well below that.
In addition to being stretched thin, Secret Service operatives were subordinate to policing institutions. They did not have the authority to search for evidence or even arrest criminals without the cooperation of the local police authorities.
These two major issues, along with insufficient funds could have crippled lesser men, but Secret Service Operatives were resourceful, determined, and loyal to their country.
Counterfeiting was no accidental crime. It was committed purposefully, requiring skill, equipment, and a network of likeminded criminals. Like all criminals, counterfeiters did not want to be caught and did whatever they could to protect their criminal network. It wasn’t uncommon for them to grease the wheels of corrupted police officers making it difficult as a Secret Service operative to determine who could be trusted.
Counterfeiters had fully developed criminal subcultures that were difficult to break into, and anyone could be a counterfeiter, from the lowly street peddler all the way up to the upper crusts of society. No level of income was exempt from potential involvement. Even a sweet old grandma down the street could be the ring leader. Networks could stretch the width of the United States and relied on a decentralized underworld structure that transcended community boundaries.
Bringing Criminals to Justice
The Secret service adopted a long-term strategy for suppressing counterfeiting. While the country was split into 11 districts, covering multiple states and territories, the first step of this plan was to concentrate its operatives in the largest urban centers: New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.
There, they sought to penetrate the criminal networks by starting at the lowest level and gradually working their way upward to identifying an arresting the manufacturers. Informants were crucial to their success, providing information as well as introductions into these secretive gangs of counterfeiters.
Good cases took weeks, even months, to develop, and required an enormous amount of patience and dedication. Although not usually dangerous, (the first operative to lose their life on the job was not until 1907), operatives stayed in peak condition to contend with criminals who did not wish to be caught.
Operatives were scrutinized by their superiors and were required to write extensive daily reports. Expenses were itemized, including information about the purchase of counterfeit notes, travel expenses, even their personal expenses. In 1875, Chief Washburn demanded that field operative Andrew Drummond obtain a refund from a Philadelphia telegraph operator who had overcharged him one cent. Ever dutiful, he obtained the refund.
Not only were their expenditures itemized, their days were detailed from waking moment until slumber. A typical report might say: “I got up at 5:30 AM, ate my breakfast, left home at 7 AM, arrived at the office at 8 AM, at 8:30 I went to First National Bank…., I returned home at 10 PM and went to bed at 11 PM.”
Though they faced internal and external challenges, through the use of informants, undercover work, and both investigative and instigative techniques, the Secret Service was able to reduce counterfeiting from the most prominent criminal activity in the United States prior to the Civil War to a spattering of successful occurrences by 1900.
What do you think? Do you have what it took to be a Secret Service operative? Which would be the most challenging for you? The internal or external challenges? Why?
Me? No way. Did you see that wake-up time? Uh uh, nope. Mornings and I have a mutual disdain for each other. It is only out of sheer love for my children that I am up in time to get them to school. When it comes to documenting details… forget it! I’m lucky if I remember to put an appointment on my calendar. As far as which would be most difficult for me? Definitely the internal bureaucracy. As for the external challenge? I might be lucky enough to be able to worm my way into a counterfeiting ring, but it would likely be how my heroine did. Completely on accident! (Although she is handling it way better than I would!)
Next Throwback Thursday (3/9/17): To Catch a Counterfeiter – Pt 2 – The Informant