Fraud Week, Part 3: Funny Money

Deborah M. Child ( has been at AAS for the past month researching her upcoming book on Lyman Parks (1788-1872). Parks’ forged bank notes were so accomplished that even the experts could not tell his notes from legitimate currency. Part of Fraud Week on Past is Present, Deborah’s post below gives tips on how to identify counterfeit currency, starting with a bill that features our man-of-the-week, George Washington.

Gilbert Stuart’s bust portrait of George Washington continues to be a favorite subject for vignettes on American currency. Shown here [Fig. 1] is an example from the AAS currency collection.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge): Two dollar bill purportedly from the Washington Bank in Westerly, RI
This counterfeit bank note is an excellent illustration of what to look for when examining currency made before 1862 when the Federal Government began regulating the currency. Prior to that, each bank adopted its own distinctive design. Paper was not standardized and bank note plates were outsourced to private engravers. Internal control of currency was just as loosely maintained. Each note was individually numbered and then signed by the cashier and the bank president. Denominations for currency were not standardized either and could range from five and half cents to 10,000 dollars. All these variations provided a myriad of opportunities for the counterfeiters aka koniackers to ply their trade.

The first thing to consider when assessing whether a bank note is genuine is its textual content. Is the date inscribed on the note consistent with the dates of operation of the bank? Secondly, is it the correct plate design for that particular bank? Third, do the signatures look right? In this case [Fig. 1], the same hand clearly signed as the cashier and the president of the bank. The paper is equally suspect: it is thinner and darker than currency paper which has a whiter appearance and softness to it owing to the presence of silk rag.

The ink here [Fig. 1]  is of a similar inferior quality having none of the glossy jet black qualities found in inks an engraver would painstakingly prepare. Note the amateur quality and uneven spacing of the numbers. Instead of the precise lines that are accomplished with the use of a geometrical lathe that a professionals engraver would use, the lattice work surrounding the currency numbers is crudely drawn by hand and off-center. The vignette featuring Washington’s face is similarly lacking and disappears into the paper.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge): One dollar bill purportedly from the Hamilton Bank in Boston

The second example [Fig. 2] is another bank note from the AAS currency collection. Examined over a light box, it becomes immediately apparent this bill has been chemically altered. The ink is uneven and the lettering is not consistent with the rest of the text.  The paper is thinner and lighter, the texture altered, making it obvious that the bank name “Hamilton” in the center has been substituted.

Figure 2 close-up
Figure 2 (close-up)

The bank for which it was originally printed was undoubtedly defunct so the counterfeiter removed the name of the original bank and substituted this name to place it back in circulation.

Not surprisingly, all this devious behavior corrupting the currency prompted a public outcry and a proliferation of anti-counterfeit guidebooks and newspapers. Trouble was the counterfeiters would study these guides as closely as the bankers and adjusted their practices accordingly.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)
The last example [Fig. 3]  is a book illustration from E.J. Wilber & E. P. Eastman, A Treatise on Counterfeit, Altered and Spurious Bank Notes … (1865), a  guide showing step by step how to discriminate between genuine and dubious currency. No comparison image is provided for Washington at the centerpiece of the sheet. Why? The engravers here employed an especially ingenious method to prevent replicating his countenance on the currency. They placed his visage in a gilt oval using a method called dry-printing process that counterfeit artists would not have access to. Instead, the deceivers would have to rely on the ordinary wet process which results in a much darker appearance that is instantly recognized as being counterfeit. In this case, duplication (at least in theory) should not be possible.

What better way to say Happy Birthday George!

Further Reading:

Clark’s New England Bank Note List and Counterfeit Bill Detector. (Boston, MA: 1838-1845)

Mihm, Stephen. A Nation of Counterfeiters. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)

Wilber, E.J. & E. P. Eastman. A Treatise on Counterfeit, Altered and Spurious Bank Notes with Unerring Rules for Detection of Frauds in the Same. Illustrated with original steel, copper, and wood plate engravings. (Poughkeepsie, NY: Published by the authors, 1865)

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