As soon as money came into existence, people began making fakes. Some were clever and good at it, others simply relied on the ignorance of the public, hoping they were too dumb or too busy to notice. They also hoped they wouldn’t get caught, because the penalties were severe, often including death.
It’s one of only three crimes mentioned specifically in the US Constitution. The others are treason and piracy.
While counterfeiting has been around for centuries, only a handful of early practitioners remain known by name today. Below are some from the post-colonial era, along with their active years.
Most of the ne’er-do-wells on this list were active after the American Revolution in the new United States, and many had British ties. But the first is an English woman who has a special place of her own in that country’s history.
Catherine Murphy, 1780s
In 18th century England, counterfeiting was considered treason against the crown. When Murphy was convicted of making fake coins in 1789, she was first hanged, then burned at the stake for her crime. She holds the dubious distinction of being the last woman in England to be executed by burning at the stake. The Treason Act of 1790 officially prohibited it for future crimes.
David Farnsworth and John Blair, 1776-1778
Fighting on the American side during the Revolutionary War, Farnsworth and Blair were actually British spies. Part of their activities included counterfeiting Continental dollars in an attempt to destabilize the original US currency. Discovered and convicted, General George Washington pressed for their immediate execution and the two counterfeiters were hanged in Connecticut on November 3, 1778.
Abel Buell, late 1700s?
Abel Buell was an accomplished engineer, silversmith, and mapmaker with many notable achievements, including the first American-made map of the United States. Although no specific date is given, he was convicted of altering five-pound British notes into larger denominations and was sentenced to forfeiture of all his lands and life imprisonment, as well as branding of his forehead and loss of part of his right ear. But after making the prosecutor a ring on a lapidary machine he had patented, he was pardoned and the part of his ear that was cut off was reattached. He went on to invent a minting machine, establish one of Connecticut’s first cotton mills, and manufacture some of the first swords ordered by the US government. Mismanagement of his personal finances resulted in him dying in a New Haven poorhouse, but his map is part of the collection of the Library of Congress and has been exhibited as recently as 2013.
Peter Alston, 1790s-1804 – Like Father, Like Son
River pirate, horse thief, and murder Peter Alston joined his father, Philip, at his counterfeiting operations at Stack Island and Cave-in-the-Rock on the Mississippi before being captured by Spanish authorities and turned over to the US at Natchez, Mississippi Territory. There he was hanged and his head placed on a spike along the river as a warning to other criminals in the area.
John Duff, 1790-1805
After serving with George Rogers Clark in the Illinois campaigns during the Revolutionary War, Duff joined the notorious gang of thieves that included Phillip and Peter Alston at Cave-in-the-Rock on the Mississippi River where he engaged in counterfeiting Spanish milled dollars. Pursued by mercenaries hired by Captain Zebulon Pike, Sr., father of the explorer of the same name, Duff was killed on Salt Island in 1805.
Everyone enjoys a good cops-and-robber story, and counterfeiters have figured in some of the best. A few have even had movies made about them.
We’ll continue our series on Notorious Counterfeiters in the coming weeks. And we’ll follow with how collecting counterfeit coins has become a specialty of its own.