Early in the 19th century, America was without a common currency. Money was printed by individual banks, and backed by silver and gold. Some stores even offered their own currency. The notes were all different in appearance, offering criminals a unique opportunity to take advantage of the confusion this system created. Counterfeiting began to flourish. The Ohio River was essential to local counterfeiters, who regularly transported their phony goods either to and from Cincinnati or down river toward New Orleans. In the 1840s, the river was being patrolled regularly to prevent counterfeiters from spreading false notes from state to state. According to David R. Johnson’s Illegal Tender: Counterfeiting and the Secret Service, nearly eighty percent of the currency in America was counterfeit in 1862. The problem of counterfeiting ultimately led to the formation of the Secret Service in 1865.
Some of the earliest counterfeiters in our area were Jim and Daniel Brown. These New York-born brothers settled in Cincinnati and Rising Sun, respectively, and set up shop. It’s estimated they printed and distributed well over one million counterfeit dollars here and points south, with plans for much more before Daniel’s arrest in New Orleans, in the 1820s.
Counterfeiting was not limited to paper money, there were also faux coins being minted. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Sep 4, 1889 tells of a talented counterfeiter named George Williams, who was manufacturing and distributing “bogus silver dollars” in Cincinnati. Concerned with being caught, he moved down river to Hamilton Landing, and set up shop with the help of “Maxwell” and a “boy named Cooper”. Williams was given up by the young accomplice, Cooper; he and Maxwell were sent to prison.
In 1906, the Anderson Ferry’s Captain Kottmyer spotted some coins near the bank of the Boone County landing. When he fished them out, he realized that they were not authentic, and turned them over to police. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the find was “40 found coins: dollars, half dollars and quarters and a chunk of Babbitt metal” (metal used to make ball bearings).
Counterfeiting gave birth to a scam called “green goods” which took advantage of people’s interest in quick money. Responding to a flyer he had seen, Henry Houston, of Verona, made a trip to New York to purchase some counterfeit bills for 50 cents on the dollar. His ill-gotten gain would fund his dream of owning a stable of racehorses. In May of 1906, the Enquirer tells the tale of how, after turning over $300 of borrowed money, Houston discovers he has purchased six one-dollar bills, each wrapped around a stack of worthless paper. Then, as now, crime doesn’t pay.