A Counterfeiter's Paradise

BOOK: A Counterfeiter's Paradise
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Ben Tarnoff has worked at
Lapham’s Quarterly
, and his writing has appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle
. He graduated from Harvard in 2007 and lives in New York City.


Praise for
A Counterfeiter’s Paradise

“This tale of counterfeiting is a treat for everyone.…A delightful history lesson in American financial customs.…Admirable and altogether charming.”

The Washington Post

“[A] rollicking good read…Tarnoff is an engaging writer who has a fine eye for detail and the relevance of larger, historical forces.”

The New York Times
(Business Section)

“Tarnoff, a first-time author, expertly sketches biographical vignettes.…What elevates
A Counterfeiter’s Paradise
from the novelty shelf is Tarnoff’s skillful interweaving of the counterfeiter’s work and America’s revolving enchantment with and disapproval of paper money.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Ben Tarnoff writes about three Houdinis of money: men who made it magically appear, and were celebrated and beloved for it.…Highly entertaining…A thoughtful…economic history of Americans and money.”

San Francisco Chronicle

“Tarnoff has a more sophisticated understanding of economic matters than many historians.”

—Gordon Wood,
The New York Review of Books

“A colorful tale.”



The Wall Street Journal

“Informative and entertaining.”

Washington Monthly

“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.…[Tarnoff] tells a distinctly American story, studded with facts that not only dazzle but recontextualize the current state of our economy.”

Books We Like

“[A] most entertaining romp through the anarchic monetary universe of early America…[Tarnoff is] brilliantly adept at creating atmosphere and suspense.”

—Simon Winchester

“Intriguing…Tarnoff fills the book with many little-known facts and stories that will please anyone interested in the ‘story behind the stories’ in American history.
A fascinating read for devotees of the history of American crime and law enforcement agencies.”

Library Journal

“What an ingenious idea for a book and what a rousing story! A truly gifted writer, Ben Tarnoff has brought to life three unforgettable characters while at the same time providing a window onto the tumultuous financial situation that characterized early American life.”

—Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of
Team of Rivals

“Ben Tarnoff’s tales of financial skullduggery in early America are fascinating.
A Counterfeiter’s Paradise
is history as it should be written, brimming with the sort of vivid details that makes the past come alive.”

—Liaquat Ahamed, author of
Lords of Finance

“Ben Tarnoff captures the wild early years of America’s financial system through a delightful angle: the escapades of three counterfeiters. It’s a colorful tale but also an enlightening one. It helps us understand our financial culture back then—and even today.”

—Walter Isaacson, author of
Einstein: His Life and Universe
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for counterfeiters, ever since my father, a Secret Service agent, told me stories about how hard it was to catch them. Tarnoff tells the story of three colorful and almost lovable practitioners of the trade, in prose that is always accessible and sometimes downright lyrical. Along the way he drove me to the conclusion that all paper money is sorta fake. Tarnoff himself strikes me as the genuine article. I welcome his voice to that tiny chorus of writers who can make American history come alive without dumbing it down.”

—Joseph J. Ellis, author of
Founding Brothers
First Family: Abigail and John

“Lively and insightful,
A Counterfeiter’s Paradise
makes the most out of the entertaining tale of three master counterfeiters, using their careers to open an unexpected window on the making of the American economic imagination.”

—T. J. Stiles, author of
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War


Previously published as


Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. •
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand,
London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland
(a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road,
Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) •
Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017,
India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd,
24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in the United States of America as
by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2011
Published in Penguin Books 2012

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Copyright © Benjamin Tarnoff, 2011

All rights reserved


Tarnoff, Ben.

Moneymakers : the wicked lives and surprising adventures of three notorious counterfeiters / Ben Tarnoff.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN: 978-1-101-57483-6

1. Counterfeits and counterfeiting—United States—Case studies.   2. Counterfeits and counterfeiting—United States—History.   I. Title.

HG336.U5T37 2011



Printed in the United States of America


Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.



For my parents

Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!

That lends corruption lighter wings to fly!




The Confidence Man

The Populist

The Patriot






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.

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.

BOOK: A Counterfeiter's Paradise
7.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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