TBT: To Catch a Counterfeiter – Pt 3 – Working Undercover

Have you ever pretended you were someone you’re not? As a child, I often pretended I was Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Don’t give me that sissy April, I wanted to be someone who fought for justice and kicked butt.


Nowadays I just pretend I don’t hear my children saying Mom over and over again while I try to use the bathroom in peace.  As difficult as it is to convince my children I don’t hear them, I can well imagine Secret Service operatives had it much worse.


Even Hiram C. Whitley, Chief of the Secret Service from may 1869 to September 1874, admitted the difficulty of their job.


hiram“There is no branch of the Government service where so many qualifications are necessary, and none in which the field of operations is so varied.”

“To meet and thwart [crime] requires the most subtle ingenuity, incessant vigilance, and unflagging energy upon the part of officers of the law.”


Sometimes before working undercover or during the course of another operative working undercover, an operative would conduct interviews. Victims would report the passing or “shoving” of counterfeit bills, and through an interview, give the description of the alleged criminal.


interview-2004339_640.pngOnce located, another interview would be conducted with the suspect to discover whether or not the “shover” had knowingly committed the crime. In such situations, the operative had to appear honest and sincere, in order to gain the trust of those he interviewed. He also had to have keen observational skills and the ability to recognize a lie when he heard it.


While these investigative skills were great for interviewing the lower levels of criminal activity, they were practically useless for coping with the sophisticated criminals who financed, manufactured, and distributed counterfeit notes. That is where working undercover came into play.


Working within the Criminal Network

In order to enter a counterfeiting ring, an operative had to conceal his identity and cultivate contacts within the underworld, usually through the manipulation of their informants. By playing a role, he was able to participate in discussions about criminal activities and hopefully induce suspects to commit a crime when and where he could observe them.


Operatives, or their assistants, frequently purchased counterfeit money from the underworld criminals, carefully marking the buys with the date of purchase and the initials of the purchaser.




Though observing a transaction was an important objective, it was only a small part of a long-term strategy for discovering all of the criminals involved with a particular note. Operatives had to ignore minor crimes so they could build cases against major criminals. Small time criminals were offered inducements to betray the higher up criminals.


By spurning immediate arrest, the operative hoped to delve deeper into the counterfeiting ring and develop evidence against each individual. Like the Pinkertons, the Secret Service had a cataloging system of each forger’s name, age, aliases, physical description, dates of arrests and releases, criminal methods, counterfeiting specialties, and a photo of him and/or his cohorts. Ideally, arrests would occur only after all the guilty parties had been identified.


Cases required both the skills of investigating and instigating.

A Real Summary of a Case

Eventual Chief of the Secret Service, Andrew Drummond, concocted a scheme to gain a dealer’s confidence by making an arrangement with police in a small town to arrest him and his informer.


rust-1281723_640They then escaped from jail and headed for Cincinnati, where the dealers who supplied the upper South were headquartered. On their way through Louisville, local police arrested him again not knowing his true identity.  After the mishap what slyly taken care of, they were released.


Drummond told others that he had secured his release “through strategy”, which suggested bribery. By the time they reached Cincinnati, news of his exploits had preceded him, ensuring a warm welcome among the local counterfeiters.


With Drummond providing inside information, four other operatives built cases against a large network that served customers in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Their investigation occupied the summer and fall of 1873, culminating in a sweep that ensnared 72 dealers and shovers in October and another 20 in December.


You can read the riveting tale in Drummond’s own words here: Going to Prison to Make a Capture.


What do you think would be the most difficult part of working undercover? Did you have a favorite part of Andrew Drummond’s experience? 

For me, I do not think I could stay in character long enough to see the job through. I know I would end up giving myself away and ruining the entire case. The Going to Prison to Make a Capture story was actually the inspiration for my hero. In earlier versions of my work in progress, I actually took my reader through the breaking out of jail. It was a scene I dearly loved and hated to cut, but perhaps it can be shared later like a deleted scene from a movie. 🙂


Previous Posts in this Series:

To Catch a Counterfeiter – Pt 1 – The Challenges

To Catch a Counterfeiter – Pt 2 – The Informant



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