Punishing Counterfeiters - History

Punishing Counterfeiters - History

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The White House

"The Congress shall have power ... to provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States."This provision of the Constitution provides the Congress with the weapons to punish those who break the law by producing or issuing copies of legal money..


The framers of constitution gave a great deal of weight to the creation of a national currency, one that did not yet exist. So much so that they provided a methodolgy right in the Congress ot make sure that the new currency would not be copied.

Damnatio ad bestias

Damnatio ad bestias (Latin for "condemnation to beasts") was a form of Roman capital punishment in which the condemned person was killed by wild animals, usually lions or other big cats. This form of execution, which first came to ancient Rome around the 2nd century BC, was part of the wider class of blood sports called Bestiarii.

The act of damnatio ad bestias was considered entertainment for the lower classes of Rome. Killing by wild animals, such as Barbary lions, [1] formed part of the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre in AD 80. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, this penalty was also applied to the worst criminals, runaway slaves, and Christians.

Punishing Counterfeiters - History

Kenneth Scott
Foreword by David R. Johnson
320 pages, 10 illustrations, $19.95 paper

Counterfeiting flourished in the colonies. As David R. Johnson explains in his new foreword to Kenneth Scott’s classic book, “The combination of a generally inefficient law enforcement system, the gradual proliferation of colonial issues to copy, and the reliance on private citizens to prosecute criminals made it difficult to capture, prosecute, or punish counterfeiters.

“Indeed, counterfeiting in American entered a kind of golden age beginning in the early 18th century, an age that would last for roughly 150 years.” Merchants could be paid in Spanish doubloons, British pounds, or any of the various currencies each colony produced. Such a diversity of kinds of money encouraged some citizens to try their hands at counterfeiting.

Scott describes a story of how a young girl was fetching a pint of hard cider for her father the merchant remarked at how warm the coin was. “Well,” the girl replied, “that is because my father just made it.” With the rise of paper currency, women became some of the most notorious counterfeiters, making transfers of money using a hot clothes iron.

With the proliferation of both metal and paper forgeries, the colonies were forced to react with strong measures in order to protect the value of their money the difficulties in identifying and prosecuting criminals were compounded in the late 18th century when Britain encouraged counterfeiting American money to undermine the fledgling nation’s economy.

The penalties for counterfeiting were justifiably harsh. Each colonial government saw it as a serious crime and meted out a variety of punishments, from cropping of ears to death by hanging.

As much a social history of colonial America as it is a richly peopled narrative of one of the world’s oldest crimes, “Counterfeiting in America” is sure to appeal to scholars, numismatists, and general readers alike.

Punishing Counterfeiters - History

Huntington Herald-Dispatch
September 23, 1911

Long Sentences For Counterfeiters

Gray-haired Mother Only One in Whole Gang That Escaped Sentence

Leader is Given Ten Years at Leavenworth

Woman Who Was Alleged Instigator in Plot Gets Two-year Sentence.

There came to an end in Federal court yesterday, the most interesting series of counterfeiting cases ever tried in the southern district of West Virginia, resulting in six persons indicted for that offense being given sentences aggregating 30 years in confinement. Embodied in the cases were men of mature years and mere children women, young in years but old in experience and one women old and gray-haired and the mother of a large family. Fortunately for the latter District Attorney Ritz was lenient and she was sent home, the shame and disgrace of the prison shadows being kept from her.

Jack Wilson is an old and hardened criminal, his very talk betokening long years in the under world of crime. His punishment comes to him as nothing new for he has served time before for the same wrong doing. When Judge Keller imposed upon him the penalty of the law yesterday, his gray, lined face expressed no emotion - not the least. He had known all along what was coming and was not surprised.

Mercer M. Leonard, just budding into young manhood, strong, well built and with a long life before him will spend five years of it back of prison bars. His case is rather sad when it is considered that his downfall may practically be attributed to the evil influences of one man and that one and old and hardened criminal.

Mrs. Esther Folden, daughter of a prominent Mercer county family, who was sent to Moundsville for two years, is still a young woman, strong and healthy and yet alleged to have been one of the strongest supports of Jack Wilson in the making of spurious coin, selling her poultry to secure the money with which to purchase the machine used in plating the "queer," and aiding him in making bogus $5 gold pieces and silver dollars, a large number of both of which were exhibited in court.

Riley Folden, husband of Esther, who was sentenced to four years at Leavenworth, is a middle- aged man never before engaged in criminal calling so far as could be learned. He too had fallen under the spell of promised wealth held out by Wilson and will soon begin the payment of the penalty.

Little Jim Leonard, about three feet tall, red haired and eleven years old, but with plenty of shrewdness, was sentenced to two years in the National Training School for Boys. It may be that the training there will help him if the guesses of those who heard him talk and saw the shrewd little face with outcropping ears and knobby head, are anywhere near right it will take more than two years' training to change him, child though he is.

John Cooper Leonard, soft of eye, unshingled and quiet spoken, was given the same sentence as his brother Jim - two years in the National Training School.

All of these out of one little country community in Mercer county, sent to prison because they took into their midst a hardened criminal who led them on and on until the gates of the penitentiary swung open before them. There's something pitiful about the weakness of human nature and the fact couldn't well be more clearly shown than here.

When the case of Mrs. Isabelle Leonard was called, Judge Ritz addressed the court in regard to her. A little bit of a woman, gray haired and lonely, she sat through it all, a pathetic figure. The district attorney said that circumstances surrounding her particular case, called for the leniency of the court and that the government did not feel like going further into the prosecution of her. He said she had unquestionably tried to raise her children right, from all he could learn, and that she had been dragged into this affair through those children who had disregarded her teachings. After Judge Ritz had closed, each count on which Mrs. Leonard had been indicated [sic] was nollied[?] by Judge Keller.

The government found it very easy to secure convictions against those members of the alleged gang that had entered pl[e]as of not guilty to the indictments found against them. The trials were taken up yesterday morning at the opening of the court and in every case the jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty.

The evidence against the accused besides that of the secret service officers, who rounded up the gang also included the confession made by Jack Wilson the self-confessed chief of the band of counterfeiters. Wilson recited the story of the whole affair and indicated by his testimony that one of the instigators of the plot was Mrs. Ester Folden. The trials of the defendants took up only a brief time, the evidence in each one being practically the same.

Counterfeit British Coppers: Introduction

C. Wilson Peck, in his history and catalogue of British coppers (p. 106), states the counterfeiting of copper halfpence began soon after Charles II started production of the first regal issue. Apparently the Board of Trade supported a suggestion that the minting of tin coins would stop the counterfeiting. Realizing this would help the tin industry and greatly increase minting profits, proposals were approved for the minting of tin halfpence and farthings. Tin coinage went into full production under James II and, as expected, minting profits dramatically increased Mossman has calculated profits rose from 18.9% to 66.6%. However, the use of tin did nothing to stop counterfeiters. Tin was much cheaper than copper, was readily available and was more malleable thus making it easier to work. For these reasons, the number of counterfeiters dramatically increased. William and Mary minted tin coins from 1689-1692 but due to the counterfeiting problems had to abandon tin and return to copper. William's copper coins were not made by the king but rather were contracted out. The result was a lesser quality product made from cast planchets. In fact, the quality was so low and the weight range so erratic that it is now actually difficult to determine if a William III halfpenny is genuine or counterfeit. Interestingly, it does not appear any major counterfeiting operations took place at that time rather it seems counterfeit William III halfpence were produced at a later date.

The first significant counterfeiting of British coppers is usually considered to have occurred during the reign of George I following the cessasion of the minting of halfpence and farthings at the end of 1724. In a treatise from mid century it was stated that between 1725 and 1730 most counterfeiters melted down regal coppers to make debased cast counterfeits. No doubt this was due to the increase in the price of copper which rose from 12d to as much as 18d per pound in 1717 (but averaged about 13d during the first quarter of the Eighteenth century). Then, according to the treatise, starting about 1730 the counterfeiters turned to the use of commercial copper again probably due to the 1.5d reduction in the price of copper in 1729 (the price then remained stable for the remainder of the century). It has been conjectured that a large group of 362 cast counterfeit 1699 William III halfpence found in Philadelphia in 1975 were produced between 1725 and 1730. Apparently the counterfeiters made cast copies of older 1699 William III halfpence so they could be passed off as well circulated worn specimens.

Over the course of the next fifteen years the number of counterfeit coppers in circulation continued to increase. To curb this annoying problem Parliament passed an act in 1742 making it a crime to counterfeit copper coins. Since coppers were considered to be token coinage and as there had been a long tradition of local token coppers, the counterfeiting of regal coppers had not been thought of as a criminal act. Even in the new law (15 George II, chapter 28) the crime was listed as only a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of two years in jail, while the counterfeiting of silver or gold coins had long been a felony punishable by death.

As the copper content in the regal halfpence and farthings was only about half of the face value of the coin, small operation counterfeiters could potentially have made a profit even if they made full weight coins. Of course, counterfeiters did not make full weight coins, rather their products were generally from 20% to 50% lighter than regal issues. Further, through the period up to the mid 1740's British counterfeiters usually made cast coins. As casting required the counterfeiter to heat metal to a molten state these individuals would increase their profits by mixing the more expensive copper with cheaper metals to produce coins that were not only lightweight but also debased. Most often lead, tin and/or zinc was used as alloys as they were more malleable than copper. Interestingly, on a few occasions, cast coins with a high lead content will actually be heavier than regal issues but will have a lower intrinsic value. For additional information on cast coppers and their two basic methods of manufacture see the section on Cast Counterfeit Coppers.

As counterfeiting became a more lucrative business individuals began to invest more capital into these enterprises, transforming the operations into large scale ventures employing several people and using coin presses to stamp out quantities of counterfeit coppers. A fascinating letter on this topic was published in The Gentleman's Magazine for November of 1752 by a person from Birmingham. (Scans of the full text of the published letter can viewed at the bottom of this page, see the notes section.) The letter mentions that about 1745 the solicitor for the mint came to Birmingham and prosecuted a few counterfeiters who were given the maximum sentence of two years in jail. The letter went on to say:

Usually a counterfeiter would sell a quantity of coins to a wholesaler for about half their face value. The wholesalers would take the coppers throughout the country and sell them at about two-thirds face value to interested parties such as merchants, small companies and individuals called smashers. These people would then pass the coins off in commerce at face value merchants would hand them out as change, companies would use them to pay employees their wages and smashers would simply make purchases with the counterfeits.

It seems, according to the letter mentioned above, mass produced stamped counterfeit halfpence started appearing in the spring of 1751. Soon thereafter, on July 12, 1751 the king issued a royal proclamation that the 1742 anti counterfeiting act should be enforced. Apparently many officials had not considered the apprehension of misdemeanor halfpence counterfeiters to be a top priority. However, with several counterfeit presses in operation, by February of 1753 it was estimated almost half the coppers in circulation were counterfeit. At the same time significant quantities of counterfeits were being sent to the colonies.

Even with enforcement of the law the counterfeiters could not be stopped. The potential for large profits far outweighed the punishment should one be caught and convicted. In Birmingham even some of the larger industrial complexes produced counterfeit coppers, along with making various metal products and numismatic token. Smaller operations probably consisted of a small group of investors who acquired a press and hired (or took on as a partner) a skilled workman such as a metallurgist, gunsmith or silversmith to create a set of engraved dies. Possibly with the assistance of a few laborers to work the press, they supplemented their regular income with the production of counterfeit coppers. Some of these smaller operations refined their own debased metal making the coins as impure and as lightweight as possible. Others simply bought quantities of blank lightweight disks from the copper factories, as the disks were openly sold under the pretense of being buttons and harness decorations. They would simply heat up the pre-made disks and strike them into coins.

The situation deteriorated even further in the following decades, with counterfeit halfpence being produced in both England and Ireland. Partly because of the counterfeiting problem no coppers were produced during the first twenty years of the reign of George III. When production started up again in 1770 the counterfeiters outdid themselves, far surpassing the production of the royal mint.

As the principle concern of the counterfeiters was perpetrating a deception, we have no way of determining the actual number of counterfeits made in a particular year. Counterfeiters often made their coins look quite worn, some would not add a date or only put a partial date on the die. Also, they often used earlier dates to avoid detection, such as making 1771 dated halfpence in 1778, or making halfpence with dates and the image of the previous king George II. Realizing the inability to precisely date the year of issue of counterfeits, it is nevertheless interesting to observe in D.T. Batty's 1886 catalogue listing all of the varieties of halfpence he could find bearing the dates 1770-1775, there are 567 different varieties, of which 52 varieties were genuine issues and 515 were counterfeit issues. Within a year of the renewal of regal halfpence production it was clear the situation was out of control. Therefore in 1771 a new law was passed making counterfeiting a felony and placing penalties on distributors as well as minters. However, this did not stop the lucrative counterfeiting trade. Counterfeits continued to be produced and distributed. Now that there were severe penalties at home, several individuals started producing evasion coppers in large numbers for internal distribution, as these were not covered by the counterfeiting laws, and sending their counterfeit issue abroad.

Counterfeit British Coppers in America

Undoubtedly throughout the colonial period some counterfeit halfpence were inadvertently brought to the colonies from Britain in shipments of coppers. However, there were also intentional surreptitious shipments of counterfeit coppers. What is usually considered to be the earliest surviving group of counterfeit British halfpence in the American colonies comes from the 1975 Philadelphia highway find. A significant hoard of 362 cast counterfeit William III halfpence were discovered in Philadelphia during the construction of Interstate 95. All the specimens were type two halfpence dated 1699, with the date following the legend. Of the group 187 examples were examined and found to have an average weight of 111.6 grains but with a wide range from a low of 67.6 grains to a high of 169.4 grains. The edges of the coins had been filed to get rid of the excess metal that overflowed in the molds. Newman noticed the surfaces of the coins were rough and pitted, as they would be when they were first made, indicating they had not been smoothed by circulation. For this reason it is suspected the coins were buried before they were put into use. Further, Newman conjectured the copper used to make these coins was from melted regal coppers rather than commercially purchased copper and that they were made as part of a large counterfeiting operation leading him to suspect the coins were produced in England. Also, the weight of the coins were similar to the weight of cast counterfeits mentioned in period treatises as having been cast around 1725 (Parrott, pp. 2-3 and Snelling, p. 44). Apparently the individual who had possession of these coins in colonial Philadelphia feared prosecution and buried them rather than passing them off. Exactly when this event occurred is unknown. Newman suspected it happened before 1741 when the exchange rate for halfpence became less favorable.

These William III halfpence can be described as a hoard, that is, as a single group of coins collected together at one specific moment in time which then were either forgotten or became inaccessible. When hoards are discovered we can learn much about coinage in circulation at the time the hoard was assembled, if we can determine when that time was. The Philadelphia find was located because of road construction, so the area was quite disturbed therefore we cannot be sure if other coins found in the vicinity of the William III counterfeit halfpence had been buried at the same time. Coins had been dropped in that area for almost three hundred years as coin were found with dates ranging from 1681 to 1907. Interestingly, there were four other cast counterfeit halfpence: a 1734 cast lead example, a 1737 cast pewter coin and two 1738 cast pewter halfpence as well as five struck counterfeits (three of George II and two of George III). Since the two 1738 cast pewter examples still have the overflow metal from the molds, it is quite likely, as Newman mentions, that they were locally produced experimental pieces. Possibly a counterfeiter from the 1730's dumped the William III halfpence and the other cast counterfeits at the site. Of course, if the lead and pewter counterfeit coins were backdated it would mean those coins would have been deposited in the ground (or lost) at a later date. As the section below will detail, even the cast William III coins could have come to the colony as late as the 1750's. For a full list of the Philadelphia highway find - Click here.

The first truly significant influx of counterfeit halfpence did not begin until about mid century. It seems the problem was first brought to light in 1753. What appears to have occurred is that the cast counterfeit halfpence, which were being taken out of circulation in Britain around 1745-1750, were ending up in the American colonies. On July 9, 1753 a Mr. J. Willard of London sent a letter of warning to Boston addressed to Mr. Draper, editor of The Boston Weekly News-Letter. The letter, published in the September 22, 1753 edition of the paper, warned:

The situation was worse in New York where, as has been discussed in the section on regal coppers in the colonies, British coppers were trading at double their face value. A dispatch dated August 6, 1753 from New York City was published in the Boston Weekly News-Letter of August 16th stating that around the beginning of the month counterfeit halfpence had been seized in New York. Apparently a bag containing £6 worth of halfpence was discovered to have 36s worth of cast counterfeit coins. This calculates to 864 counterfeit halfpence or 30% out of a total of 2,880 coins. It was further stated the counterfeits were cast in sand with a rough look, indistinct letters and that they were two pounds underweight. As 36s in halfpence minted at the authorized weight of 46 per pound should have weighed 18.78 pounds, we can calculate these counterfeits were 16.78 pounds or about 136 grains each, which comes to just under 52 coins per pound. The article ends with the supposition these counterfeits were, "some of those that were so current in London some Time ago, and offer'd to Sale there for 7d per lb. [pound in weight]. They are of different Sorts and Dates."

Apparently several other shipments of counterfeits had entered New York undetected. On December 3, 1753 The New York Gazette reported:

Local merchants had long realized the problem of the overvaluation of British coppers within the colony. By accepting them at double their face value large quantities had entered the colony. Importation restriction on coppers arriving from other colonies had been implemented earlier but now the threat came from counterfeits arriving from Britain. To curb the problem seventy-two New York City merchants signed an agreement on December 18, 1753 that they would receive and pay out halfpence at the rate of fourteen to the New York shilling rather than at the previous rate of twelve to the shilling. As this resulted in a devaluation of the money individuals then held, the situation led to a demonstration during which three instigators were arrested.

The caution over counterfeits mentioned in the December 3rd article continued. In a letter from New York dated December 25, 1753 that was sent to Philadelphia and printed in Boston in the Boston Weekly News-Letter of January 24, 1754 it stated:

Warnings about in the influx of cast counterfeit halfpence were also issued in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The Pennsylvania Gazette of November 15, 1753 ran the following warning:

The importation of counterfeits continued. In Massachusetts, the House of Representatives started an investigation of counterfeit coppers on March 27, 1755 stating, "as large quantities of counterfeit half pence, of base metal, had been imported, and, with French and other small copper coin continually increase, a committee are (sic) ordered to report measures to prevent such practices." It appears that by 1760 the majority of coppers sent over from Britain were counterfeits. In 1766 Rhode Island passed an anti-counterfeiting law that imposed death on counterfeiters, and unlike most earlier anti counterfeiting measures, this bill also imposed the death penalty on those who knowingly passed counterfeit coins. Although primarily directed at gold and silver the law also covered coppers.

What happened was that there was such a concern over accepting the cast counterfeit William III halfpence being dumped on the colonies from Britain, that even regal William III halfpence were rejected. The New York Gazette for April 24, 1754 printed a plea for reason as follows:

During the Revolutionary War all metal, including copper coins, was collected and melted for the war effort. Through this difficult period most currency, including small change, was limited to money substitutes or printed paper notes rather than metal coinage. However during the later years of the war it seems areas occupied by the British, especially the main garrison in New York, saw an influx of counterfeit coppers. These coppers travelled through the mid-Atlantic states and apparently were a concern in Philadelphia. On July 14, 1781, Joseph Reed, acting as President of the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, prohibited public officials from accepting counterfeit British halfpence and recommended that private citizens do the same, stating:

Following the end of the war in 1783 British counterfeiters saw America as a prime market, especially since passing counterfeit coppers had been made a felony in Britain in 1771. Thus a flood of these counterfeits made their way to America. In fact, Newman has argued as early as 1785 or 1786 some varieties of counterfeit halfpence were produced in Britain solely for export to America. He has shown the five known varieties of 1785 counterfeit halfpence (from three obverse and three reverse dies) share the same letter punches (including what appears to be a specific broken R punch). Newman went on to assigned their manufacture to Britain because the same letter punches had been used to produce an obverse die for George III counterfeit Irish halfpence. Only one Irish coin made from that die has been discovered and that item has no date on the reverse but rather, the reverse contains a brockage, or inverse image, of the obverse! The evidence that these punches were used on an Irish counterfeit and the lack of any evidence connecting the punches to America led Newman to to suspect a British origin for coppers. Further Newman concluded the 1785 counterfeits were made solely for export because no examples of 1785 counterfeit halfpence have ever been discovered in English collections, rather all known examples have been found in worn condition in older American collections. Newman went on to suggest Massachusetts as a port of entry for the coppers. The Massachusetts Act of 1750 prohibiting importation of counterfeit coppers expired on November 1, 1785. No new law was enacted for eight months creating a "window of opportunity" for British counterfeiters.

In addition to the 1785 counterfeit coppers several other varieties of counterfeit halpence made their way to America. Newman lists several contemporary complaints including the following from The Massachusetts Centennial of January 11, 1786:

An investigation by the New York legislature led to a report issued on March 5, 1787 discussing the principle coppers then in circulation within the state. The report stated there were firstly a few genuine halfpence, secondly a number of Irish halfpence and:

The pervasiveness of counterfeit British coppers is also borne out by the archeological evidence. The John Bridges Tavern, located just northwest of Ft. Ligonier in western Pennsylvania, was in operation ca. 1775-1795. In the excavation of that site 25 copper coins and four unidentifiable copper disks were unearthed along with 9 pieces of Spanish silver. Fourteen of the sixteen halfpence were counterfeit (there were 11 counterfeit George III halfpence of which two were American made, 3 counterfeit George II halfpence, 1 regal George III halpenny and 1 regal George II halfpenny). The other coins unearthed included: 1 regal George II farthing, 1 cut regal George III halpence (only 1/4 of the coin), 1 New Jersey copper, 1 Virginia halfpenny, 1 Constellatio Nova copper of 1785, 2 Connecticut coppers, 2 French coppers, the 4 completely worn copper disks (which Trudgen suspects were halfpence), 7 Spanish half real coins and 2 cut two reales coins (one was 1/4 thus equaling a half real and the other was 1/8 of the coin thus equaling a quarter real). In all there were 16 halfpence, 9 other coppers and 9 pieces of Spanish silver. Of the 25 coppers 64% were British halfpence and out of those only two or 8% were regal and another two or 8% were American counterfeits, thus 48% of all the identifiable coppers found at the site were counterfeit British halpence. As this find represents coins lost over a defined twenty year period of time it can provide important evidence concerning general trends in the circulation of colonial coinage but clearly it is not as revealing as a hoard buried at a specific moment in time. Also, we can assume individuals searched longer and harder for more valuable change that might have fallen from their purse or pocket, thus the remaining evidence would show a higher number of the "cheap" or less valuable coins not worth troubling oneself to search for. Nevertheless the proportion of British counterfeit coppers clearly shows they were a significant part of the local economy.

Recently, John Kleeberg has shown the ship known as The Faithful Steward , which left Londonderry in Northern Ireland on July 9, 1785, was carrying a large quantity of illegal counterfeit British halfpence to America along with some 249 passengers when it sank off the coast of Maryland. This is one of many examples of a legitimate operation carrying illegal coppers in order to make extra profits. Kleeberg has also suggested, based on this example and other hoards of counterfeits found in Ireland (as the 206 counterfeit halfpence found near Jonesborough, County Armagh, now in the Ulster Museum), that some British and Irish counterfeit halfpence imported to America may have been made in Ireland rather than England.

Evasion Issues

Along with counterfeits there were several "evasion issues" produced in England and Ireland. These issues did not try to make exact copies of coppers (usually halfpence), instead they only tried to closely resemble regular issues. Usually the images would be the same but the motto "Georgius III Rex" would be changed to "George Rules", "Georgius III Pax", "Britain Rules" or the like. Sometimes the portrait of the king would face in the wrong direction. Since these coins were not exact copies of regal issues, the makers could not be charged with counterfeiting under English law.

Some individuals turned to evasion pieces as early as the 1750's but the majority were produced after counterfeiting coppers was made a felony in 1771. Newman (pp. 151-153) has traced the history of evasion coins and found they were not used in America. The idea that evasion coppers were used in America was first posited by the German coin dealer S.K. Hazfeld who came to Philadelphia in 1877 and introduced evasion coppers to the American numismatic community. The New Jersey specialist Edward Maris believed evasion coins were indirectly referred to the July 14, 1781 document signed by John Reed, the president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania that is quoted above, which stated "Divers ill-disposed persons have manufactured or imported into this State quantities of base metal, in the similitude of British half-pence". Maris felt similitude referred to evasion rather than counterfeit coppers. Clearly this is a distinction Maris could easily make, but his error was in supposing it was a distinction John Reed understood and was trying to make. Rather it seems Reed simply used this term to refer to counterfeit coppers as similar to the regal coins. Most later coin dealers followed Hazfeld and Maris in describing evasion pieces as having been used in America. Newman has explained no evasion copper has ever been found in excavations at an American site nor has one appeared in a colonial coin hoard. Recently, Philip Mossman has concurred in this opinion stating: "there is no evidence that evasive halfpence ever circulated in America nor is there any report of such pieces being recovered in accumulations or hoards from the colonial period." ( Money of the American Colonies p. 123). In fact, it would seem reasonable that counterfeiters, under fear of prosecution, would want to send their products out of the country, while there was no such incentive for the export of evasion issues. However, while vast numbers of counterfeit halfpence were being shipped to America, it does seem a small number of evasion coppers also made their way to the colonies. On April 4, 2019 John Goff, a metal detectorist in Vermont, e-mailed and sent me images of a well-worn George II evasion Irish copper dated 1756 with the legend George Ruled that he had uncovered. The find was made on April 3, 2019 in the township of Ferrisburg, VT. A very well preserved specimen of this same variety is illustrated on our website.

For those interested in viewing a few evasion coppers - click here.


The Gentleman's Magazine, ed. by Sylvanus Urban, London: E Cave, vol. 22 (November 1752) p. 500 contains a letter from E.Z. of Birmingham dated November 25, titled, "Counterfeit Halfpence mischeif and gain by." followed by an excerpt from the Oxford Gazette about Abington tradesmen resolving to take no more Birmingham halfpence. Click here for a jpeg image of the full page. And here to view larger versions of column one and column two.

Counterfeit, or more properly, imitation, British coppers made in the colonies, at Machin Mills and other locations, are listed separately. The examples below are considered to be of English origin, although as Weston has recently discussed, attribution to America or Britian is usually subjective. He suggests using the term "Anonymous Halfpence" rather than British or American.

Diagrams of a serial casting mold. Top Mold and Bottom Mold.

Diagrams of a parallel casting mold. Top Mold.


See: C. Wilson Peck, English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958, second edition, London: British Museum, 1964 Eric Newman, "American Circulation of English and Bungtown Halfpence", Studies on Money in Early America , edited by Eric Newman and Richard Doty, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1976, pp. 134-172 Mossman, pp. 108-123 Kenneth Scott, Counterfeiting in Colonial New York, Numismatic Notes and Monographs, no. 127, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1953, especially pp. 102-109 William Anton and Bruce Kesse, The Forgotten Coins of the North American Colonies, Iola, Wis.: Krause, 1992 and Byron Weston, "Evasion Hybrids: A Commentary on Counterfeit Halfpence and Farthings," The Colonial Newsletter 34 (November 1994, serial no. 98) 1465-68 with comments by J. C. Spilman following the article on the final page. On the tavern excavation see Gary A. Trudgen, "Early American Coins Recovered from the John Bridges' Tavern Site," The Colonial Newsletter 35 (July 1995, serial no. 100) 1534-40 and on the Philadelphia find, Eric P. Newman and Peter P. Gaspar, "The Philadelphia Highway Coin Find," The Numismatist vol. 91 (March, 1978) 453-467 Richard Parrott, Some Cautions Concerning the Copper Coin, London: for R. Baldwin, 1751 Thomas Snelling, A View of the Copper and Coinage of England, London, 1766 Eric Newman, "Were Counterfeit British Style Halfpence Dated 1785 Made Specifically for American use?" The American Numismatic Society, Museum Notes vol. 33 (1988) 205-223 and plates 24-25 with a classification of struck counterfeit halfpence dated 1781 and 1785 John M. Kleeberg, "The Shipwreck of the Faithful Steward : A"Missing Link" in the Export of British and Irish Halfpence," in Coinage of the Confederation Period, ed. by Philip L. Mossman, Coinage of the Americas Conference, Proceedings No. 11, held at the American Numismatic Society, October 28, 1995, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1996, pp. 55-77 Charles W. Smith, "The English George III Contemporary Counterfeit Halfpenny Series: A Statistical Study of Production and Distribution," in Coinage of the Confederation Period, ed. by Philip L. Mossman, Coinage of the Americas Conference, Proceedings No. 11, held at the American Numismatic Society, October 28, 1995, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1996, pp. 23-53 Charles W. Smith's, "The Annotated Halfpenny," The Colonial Newsletter 37 (August 1997, serial no. 105) 1715-1726 reproducing and annotating an 18th century story of the circulation of a counterfeit halfpenny also, Charles W. Smith and Philip L. Mossman, "Cast Counterfeit Coppers in Pre-Federal America," The Colonial Newsletter 38, no. 1 (April 1998, serial no. 107) 1775-1803 (includes information on cast British halfpence made in Britain as well as casts of confederation era coppers made in America. In America cast counterfeits continued to be made throughout the century.) and also of general interest see: John Craig, The Mint: A History of the London Mint from AD 287 to 1948 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 174-176, 182 and 250-254 and C.E. Challis, ed. A New History of the Royal Mint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 365-378 and 434-438.

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The Congress shall have Power To. provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States.

In England, counterfeiting was a treasonous act. The American colonies differed widely in their attitude towards counterfeiting. New York, for example, applied the death penalty, while Connecticut limited punishment to six months in jail. During the Revolution, the British counterfeited state and continental paper scrip to depreciate the currency.

At the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris voiced concern that “[b]ills of exchange . . . might be forged in one State and carried into another.” Another delegate feared that the counterfeiting of “foreign paper” might embarrass foreign relations. Consequently, when Oliver Ellsworth moved to allow Congress the power to punish “counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the U. States,” it was unanimously approved. Yet in light of the Necessary and Proper Clause, it is not clear why there was a need for this power to be defined in the Constitution at all. Justice Joseph Story later declared in his Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833) that “this power [to provide for the punishment of counterfeiting] would naturally flow, as an incident, from the antecedent powers to borrow money, and regulate the coinage and, indeed, without it those powers would be without any adequate sanction.”

Nonetheless, there are three reasons why a separate delegated power to punish counterfeiting is appropriate. First, the Framers took pains to undo the British law on treason, which included counterfeiting and was often punished by parliamentary bills of attainder. Thus, the Constitution defines the crime of treason in terms that leave Congress no power to expand it. The Constitution also prohibits bills of attainder. But the Framers did want authority over the remaining formerly treasonous crime of counterfeiting to be left in the hands of the national legislature. Otherwise, having denied Congress the power to define treason, it might be inferred that the Constitution also denied Congress the power to legislate against counterfeiting.

Second, the Framers lodged all the incidents of the foreign-affairs power in the national government. Counterfeiting of foreign securities was a serious breach of international comity. The clause empowers Congress to deal with an important element of the nation’s international obligations.

Third, the clause betokens federal supremacy in the field of monetary policy. In The Federalist No. 42, James Madison includes the power over counterfeiting as among those powers “which provide for the harmony and proper intercourse among the States.” The implication is that, like commerce, the power over counterfeiting is exclusive and plenary. Justice Joseph Story was explicit: “this power would seem to be exclusive of that of the States, since it grows out of the Constitution, as an appropriate means to carry into effect other delegated powers, not antecedently existing in the States.”

In the hands of the judiciary, however, the power became limited and eventually superfluous. In Fox v. Ohio (1847), the Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law that punished the “passing” or “uttering” of counterfeited money. The Court reasoned that the actual act of counterfeiting was an offense directed at the federal government, whereas uttering counterfeited money was a “private harm” within a state’s police power. Moreover, the Court noted, England had distinguished between the two offenses, making counterfeiting a treasonous offense, but the passing or “uttering” of counterfeit coin was neither “treason nor misprision of treason.” As the Supreme Court of South Carolina explained in State v. Tutt (1831): “The offence against the Government of the United States consists in discrediting its currency. That against the State in defrauding its citizens. The offence against the State is certainly of the more palpable and dangerous character.” The result is that although the federal government has exclusive power to punish the actual act of counterfeiting, states have the concurrent power to punish the passing of counterfeited currency. The federal and state governments possess concurrent power to punish the possession of devices for making counterfeited money. Baender v. Barnett (1921).

In cases upholding the right of Congress to punish counterfeiting coinage, United States v. Marigold (1850), and counterfeiting foreign currency, United States v. Arjona (1887), the Court justified Congress’s power under the Coinage Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Commerce Clause, and the Counterfeiting Clause. In practical terms, there seems little if any activity that can be reached under the Counterfeiting Clause that could not also be reached by other congressional powers. The Court, however, does apply the First Amendment as a limit to legislation passed under the Counterfeiting Clause. In Regan v. Time, Inc. (1984), the Court struck down a portion of the statute permitting limited reproduction of United States currency “for philatelic, numismatic, educational, historical, or newsworthy purposes” as being content-based.

5 Successful Counterfeiters

Anybody can steal -- it doesn't take much thought. Counterfeiting, on the other hand, requires panache and finesse. Pilfering goods and services from an unwitting vendor by printing and using fake currency is as much an art as it is a crime the fraternity of counterfeiters is one that's populated by criminals with more than the average amount of derring-do. In fact, the history of counterfeiting is filled with tales of close calls, jailbreaks, Nazi plots, spectacular fraud and, of course, money.

It used to be much easier to get away with counterfeiting money than it is today. Without a central bank like the Federal Reserve in place, anyone with the means to do so and the reputation to back it up could issue notes of legal tender. With private businesses and banks issuing their own money, an estimated 10,000 different kinds of currency were in circulation in the United States in 1850 [source: Lapham].

These days, the government's determination to fight counterfeiting has made it a dying criminal pursuit. Security measures like increasingly detailed paper currency and tightened banking restrictions make counterfeiting more difficult. The advent of desktop ink jet printers have produced a certain laziness in today's currency forgers. Counterfeiting has become what one 22-year veteran of the Secret Service calls "a lost art" [source: Lambe].

That said, the legends of those counterfeiters who were dedicated to their craft remain as enthralling as ever. What follows are the stories of some of the best counterfeiters who ever lived.

Widely considered by historians as one of the most colorful characters of American history, Stephen Burroughs is also one of the least known -- despite writing and publishing a memoir that remains in print today.

Burroughs was born in New Hampshire in 1765 and was raised throughout the Northeastern United States. From an early age, he showed distinct signs of acute chicanery: When he stole several watermelons from a local farmer as a boy, he joined the search party assembled to find the thief. As he grew older, Burroughs' crimes became more serious.

He was posing as a minister and had led a congregation for six months when he was first arrested for passing counterfeit money in Springfield, Mass. Fearing an escape attempt, authorities soon moved him to a prison in Northampton, Mass. Not one to be caged, Burroughs set fire to the jail where he was imprisoned and escaped. After several more escapes and apprehensions by police, he finished out his prison term, moved to Canada -- and led a successful counterfeiting ring.

What's notable about Stephen Burroughs is that his criminal streak came with a solid reputation as a magnanimous citizen and humanitarian. He founded at least one library, served as a schoolteacher and retired from crime to tutor Canadian children from wealthy families. He died in 1840.

In addition to having arguably the coolest name of any counterfeiting ring, Great Britain's Lavender Hill Mob was also the most prolific. The mob was fronted by Stephen Jory and Kenneth Mainstone, an "old school rogue" and a retired printer, respectively [source: Art Fake].

In the early 1990s, Jory and Mainstone got together with several other men and began printing fake pounds sterling notes, which had a face value of around 50 million pounds [source: BBC]. The gang also made extra money by printing fake stamps and selling them.

The gang came under scrutiny after an accomplice had a run-in with police. It's reasonable to assume that they would've attracted attention regardless Jory was already a well-known counterfeiter credited with pioneering the knock-off perfume market. Despite their demonstrated skill, Scotland Yard would take the entire gang down one by one in a sting called Operation Mermaid. Jory and three other members confessed Jory received an eight-year prison sentence. Mainstone and another accomplice stood trial and were convicted. As a result of the Mob's exploits, the Bank of England changed the design of its 20-pound note to include more security features.

In the tradition of Stephen Burroughs, Stephen Jory wrote several books about his criminal past, including a bestselling memoir called "Funny Money" [source: Willis]. He died in 2006.

In addition to carrying out the genocide of Jews, Roma, Catholics, homosexuals and other unfairly marginalized groups, fighting the Allies in Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean and invading foreign nations, the Nazis also spent World War II counterfeiting.

The project was dubbed Operation Bernhard -- after Bernhard Kruger, the SS officer in charge of the project. The Nazis put concentration camp inmates with printing skills to work in the secret camp at Sachsenhausen producing counterfeit U.S. dollars and British pound notes. The Nazis forced the successful production of $650 million in pound notes, equal to about $7 billion in today's dollars [source: Malkin].

The Nazis weren't interested in making any big purchases the motive behind Operation Bernhard was to introduce enough fake money into the British economy to undermine the inflation usually associated with a sudden influx of cash. Germany had similar plans for the American economy, but the Soviets invaded Berlin just after the forced laborers at Sachsenhausen mastered the counterfeit hundred-dollar bill.

In other words, the Nazis weren't so much caught as they were defeated in the war. The group's downfall put an end to its counterfeiting operation.

Charles Ulrich had as much of a flair for attracting women as he had for creating flawless plates for printing counterfeit hundred-dollar bills. In the 1860s, the young Ulrich made a name for himself in New York City as a gifted engraver of plates used for counterfeiting hundred dollar bills. By the time he finally gave up a life of crime and confessed during an 1868 trial in Cincinnati (receiving 12 years in a federal penitentiary), Ulrich estimated he'd produced around $80,000 worth of phony bills, equal to nearly $1.3 million in 2008 dollars [source: New York Times, West Egg].

His incarceration following his Cincinnati trial was hardly his first. In the daring tradition of counterfeiters, Ulrich had escaped from prison several times. After one break from a New York prison, Ulrich led police on a chase into Canada. The counterfeiter managed to evade capture by crossing the Niagara River in a small boat and was nearly carried over the falls by the current.

Ultimately, Ulrich's downfall was his weakness for women. During his criminal youth, he romanced several women and lived as a polygamist, moving from one city to another and engaging in relationships without breaking off old ones. When he moved his wife to live with him, his girlfriend and another female friend, the women turned on him and gave him up to the police, resulting in his 1868 trial.

Sir Isaac Newton spent the final years of his life hunting money counterfeiters and convicting them to death

Sir Isaac Newton was a revolutionary mathematician, astronomer, and physicist, who has been praised as one of the greatest scientists of all times.

His mathematical research led to the development of classical mathematics, he devised the laws of gravity and motion which became the fundamental scientific principles of physics, and he designed and built the first functional reflecting telescope.

During his middle years, he was a professor at the Trinity College, Cambridge. He made many of his scientific discoveries while lecturing optics, physics, and philosophy. His genius was promptly noticed by many scientific authorities of the time and earned him the title of the Fellow of the Royal Society in 1672 when he was 30 years old.

Portrait of Newton, 1689 by Godfrey Kneller

Despite the fact that Newton’s life revolved almost exclusively around scientific research, his final position was somewhat unscientific. In 1696, he moved to London after he had accepted a position of the warden of the Royal Mint.

The Royal Mint is a British governmental institution that controls the production of British coins. Newton became the Master of Mint in 1699 and chose to partake in the government’s war against the money counterfeiters.

He reformed the government’s policy on counterfeiting and sought to punish counterfeiters and clippers. At the time when Newton was Master of Mint, counterfeiting money was considered as an act of high treason: those convicted of the crime were sentenced to death and executed by being hung, drawn and quartered.

Newton was actively involved in investigations of suspected felons: he would dress up as a rugged bum and visit local bars, taverns, and markets to gather information about his suspects. This allowed him to persecute and convict at least 28 counterfeiters of coins, successfully.

Although extremely fond of persecuting counterfeiters, Newton opposed the death penalty. At the beginning of his incumbency as Master of Mint, he was afraid that he would lack the emotional strength required to convict criminals to death.

Sir Isaac used the coat of arms of the Newton family of Gunnery, Lincolnshire Photo Credit

However, he was an avid enforcer of constitutional laws and therefore decided to abide by them and authorize execution of counterfeiters.

Aside from being one of the most influential scientists ever, Sir Isaac Newton was an enthusiastic hunter of counterfeiters and a seeker of justice. Ironically, the crest of his esteemed family includes two crossed bones, a symbol commonly associated with piracy, viciousness, and anarchy.


Skinning alive, also known as flaying, was one of the most gruesome execution methods ever conceived, especially prevalent during the classical antiquity. It was used mostly on captured soldiers and dangerous criminals.

Flaying of a corrupt judge(Italy, 1657)

The Aztecs of Mexico often flayed their war prisoners during ritual human sacrifices. There are also many indications of ancient Assyrians flaying the defeated rulers of their enemies and nailing their skin to the city walls, as a warning to all potential rebels.

In most used method of flaying, person’s hands were tied above his or her head, while the executioner gradually cut off all the skin using a very knife, starting at the face. Often, attempts were made to keep the skin intact. Another method involved severely burning the victim, and then gradually peeling his or her skin off.

In the year 415, Hypatia of Alexandria, famous female mathematician and philosopher, was allegedly flayed alive by a enraged Christian mob, using sharp oyster shells.

Punishing Counterfeiters - History

Bluefield Daily Telegraph
June 29, 1911

Two Women Inspiration for Counterfeiters

Mrs. M. M. Leonard and Mrs. Ester Foalding [sic] Leading Figures in Alleged Gang.

Ten Now in Huntington Jail Awaiting Trial

With Round-up of Band That Has Been Operating Extensively in West Virginia Washington Authorities Breathe Easier.

Nearly Thousand Dollars in Spurious Coin Seized

Ten alleged counterfeiters, alleged to have been operating extensively in West Virginia, have been rounded up by the secret service men of the treasury department, and are now awaiting trial in Huntington. In the socalled "gang," whose alleged operations escaped the vigilance of the West Virginia police, are Mrs. M. M. Leonard and Mrs. Ester Foalden, two women whom the secret service men declare are the leading figures and the inspiration for the daring series of counterfeits.

Charles K. Wright, operator for the secret service bureau of the the [sic] treasury department, was sent to West Virginia more than two weeks ago, when the news first reached Washington that two suspicious characters had been arrested in the Widemouth section of this county, which arrests were reported in the Daily Telegraph at this time. Representing himself as one of the "profession," Wright persuaded Mrs. Foalden that he was a friend who could lend aid, and declares he elicited from her a confession by which it is believed the entire "gang" will be convicted.

In commenting on the case Chief John M. Wilde, of the secret service, said:

"It is one of the most remarkable bits of work that we have had for some time. Wright was given the case when two arrests were made on suspicion, and from that developed a case which has led to the arrest of what we believe to be the entire counterfeiting gang. With their arrest the authorities will breathe easier. They had plates which enable them no only to make spurious gold coins, but paper bills."

Wright's report has been forwarded to the authorities at Washington.

That the two women of the alleged gang should have been arrested first lends an atmosphere of peculiar interest to the case. Several months ago the police of West Virginia were mystified by the regular appearance in various districts - particularly the country surrounding Huntington - of gold $5 pieces so closely imitating the original that they could not be detected, except by experts. A careful watch was set for those responsible for the influx of the gold pieces, but nothing resulted until a few weeks ago, when the two women were arrested in a cafe while attempting to pass one of the coins.

Even the police did not believe that either of the women was connected with the counterfeiting plot. Hesitating as to the future action, the police telegraphed at Chief Wilkie at Washington who at once sent Wright.

Wright, on arriving in Huntington, went to the two women and represented himself as a counterfeiter. Th[r]ough them, according to secret service officials, he ascertained the status of the case and was given the trail of their husbands, who, it is claimed, were the instigators of the plan.

Without letting Mrs. Foalden or Mrs. Leonard know of his plan, Wright began a still hunt for the husbands and after two weeks of trailing arrested them.

The arrested were made in this county and John E. Wilson, M. M. Leonard, and R. R Foalden were held on charges of counterfeiting. With them were captured J. R. Leonard and R. R. Foalden, jr., sons of two of the men who are held by the secret service.

The police recovered $110 in $5 gold coins and $180 in $1 silver coins a counterfeiting outfit, and a money belt containing $635 in counterfeit $5 gold coins.

Watch the video: FLAWLESS Biggest, best counterfeiters (September 2022).


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