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 could be severe, often including death.
Our founders took it seriously, too. Counterfeiting is 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. Here are some of the earliest, with their active years.
King Philip of France, early 1300s
In order to pay back massive debts, “Philip the Fair” debased French coinage, reducing its precious metal content and leading to a two-thirds drop in its value. In 1306, it led to rioting in Paris, forcing Philip to seek temporary refuge in the Paris Temple of the Knights Templar. Returning safely to his throne, Philip suffered a stroke while hunting and died a few weeks later, on November 29, 1314, at Fontainebleau palace.
William Chaloner, 1690s
William Chaloner was a British counterfeiter active for nearly 30 years. Taking advantage of poor quality vintage coinage, corrupt officials, and several financial crises, he counterfeited French and British coins of excellent quality as part of one of many “coining gangs” operating at the time. He was eventually convicted of counterfeiting and forgery and hanged on March 16, 1699.
Mary Peck Butterworth, early 1700s
Mary Butterworth began counterfeiting colonial notes in the Rhode Island area around 1716. Ingeniously lifting ink from real notes with a hot iron, she transferred it to cotton cloths instead of printing plates and inked the resulting images on paper. It quickly became a lucrative family enterprise, but authorities became suspicious and got her brother and his wife to testify against her. However, charges were ultimately dropped due to lack of evidence, and Mrs. Butterworth, having given up counterfeiting, lived until 1775, dying at age 88.
David Hartley, 1760s
"King" David Hartley, was head of the Cragg Vale Coiners gang of counterfeiters that produced fake gold coins in rural England. He was captured in 1770 and hanged. His brother and co-conspirator Isaac escaped capture and lived to a ripe old age, passing finally in 1815.
Philip Alston, 1770-1799
Alston was a soldier, privateer, politician, and thief known for counterfeiting Spanish milled dollars in isolated hideouts on the edges of US territory in the late 18th century. Often sought but never caught, Alston became a land agent for the Spanish government along the central Mississippi River and is presumed to have died around the turn of the 19th century.
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.