by Laura Mortkowitz
Counterfeiting was made easy and understandable for students on Monday, when the History Department hosted the 16th annual Emanuel Levine Lecture.
The lecture series began in 1991 in recognition of Dr. Emanuel Levine, a history professor at Rider for 40 years, by his wife, Harriet. This year’s speaker, Dr. Stephen Mihm of the University of Georgia, spoke on his book A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States.
“We don’t think about what’s on our money, because we don’t look at our money,” Mihm said. “But there was a time when money was the subject of intense scrutiny.”
Before the Civil War, counterfeiting was a common and barely punishable offense, he said. Almost any group could go to the state government and become a charter bank. They chose how the money looked and even the denominations used. As a result, there were bills ranging from the typical $5 to the rare $2 and even absurd amounts, such as $7, $11 and even $1 3/4.
At that time in U.S. history there was no strong federal bank, which made counterfeiting bank notes easy and, almost, acceptable.
“The federal government didn’t issue paper currency and there wasn’t enough gold and silver to go around,” Mihm said. “Someone needed to pick up the lack [of money].”
He added that if a person was caught counterfeiting money today, he or she would face significant jail time. Back then that same person wouldn’t be “punished with the same ferocity.”
The problem with counterfeiting was that it didn’t usually come from within the country. There was a famous spot just above the Vermont border in Canada where the fake money came into the country. The spot in question was popular because it was the area that Canada and America argued over where the border between the countries lay.
Of course, the counterfeit money had to go through a few hands before it was in circulation.
“Counterfeit money means nothing to you unless you can convince someone else it’s worth something,” Mihm said. “You had to take it to a store and pass it off to someone else in exchange for money or goods.”
Since there were so many charter banks going bankrupt and some that never intended to cash in the bank notes, businessmen were suspicious of bank notes in general. According to Mihm, some businessmen had admitted in court that they would rather “receive a counterfeit bank note from a good bank than a real bank note from a bad bank.” They knew it would be easier for them to pass the counterfeit to someone else.
The next step in the country’s effort to try and put a stop to counterfeiting was a printed paper called the Counterfeit Detector. When counterfeits were found, descriptions of them were printed for people to be aware.
This did not stop the counterfeiters. For instance, once they printed a dozen notes with a horse with three legs. When the Counterfeit Detector published that, the counterfeiters printed thousands with the fourth leg added.
Counterfeiters were so devious that they even printed counterfeits of the Counterfeit Detector.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that counterfeiting came to a “crashing, resounding halt” Mihm said. The government printed money for the soldiers using a green back because it was hard to counterfeit. Charter banks were given the option of giving up their state charter for a federal charter and issuing notes that looked the same across the country with different bank names or losing their charter completely.
The United States Secret Service was created, not to protect the president, but to protect the currency. As a result, counterfeiters fell one by one at the end of the 19th century.
Laws were passed that prohibited people from making anything remotely resembling money.
While the cover to Mihm’s book looks intriguing with its copy of a bank note, the paperback will probably have a different cover, he said.
A friend told Mihm that the bill on the front of his book was too close to the actual size and “technically your book is in violation of federal law.”
During all his research, he came across some unique designs on bank notes, ranging from scantily clad women to one of his favorites, a polar bear devouring a man on a raft.
With those designs, no wonder people looked at their money more.