'Moneymakers' review: Truly fun tales of 19th-century counterfeiters

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:10 PM

Books, as we know, make perfect presents, but sometimes our friends and family aren't as perfect as the books are. Relatives tend to be unnervingly idiosyncratic, and they often like our carefully chosen titles about as much as they like broccoli.

But "Moneymakers" has to be the exception that proves the rule. This tale of counterfeiting is a treat for everyone. If you want to be prepared for any occasion, start by ordering up half a dozen copies to hand out to your inarticulate brother-in-law, that uncle who spends too much time in the garage, any hardworking office slave or an adolescent who daydreams about making a living without having to do any work.

"Moneymakers" is about American counterfeiters from pre-Revolutionary times up through the troubled days of the Civil War. Although that particular line of criminal enterprise is difficult for the average person to take up in these complicated contemporary times, in olden days it was comparatively easy.

The author, Ben Tarnoff, gives us a delightful history lesson in American financial customs, and he follows the lives of three highly successful counterfeiters. But unexpectedly, the book also conjures up fantasies of the past, of glamorous bandits who were feared by the rich and admired by the poor.

Counterfeiters in the old days (and this digression in the review mirrors a digression in the book) were like the outlaws in Tom Sawyer's boyish daydreams. The first two-thirds of "Moneymakers" is filled with descriptions of lairs, dens and hideouts.

David Lewis, a successful counterfeiter who worked in the Northeast during the early 1800s, hiked to "a camp in the wilderness, guiding a wagon weighed down by two locked trunks, each about three feet long. . . . They reached the clearing where they had built their makeshift home. Around them lay all the necessities of frontier life: an ax, a butcher knife, a skillet, a canteen, a coffeepot, and various flasks of liquor. A nearby stream supplied the site with fresh water. Their hut consisted of a frame of saplings covered with a mat of branches." Indeed, a scene straight out of "Tom Sawyer."

Lewis and his cronies knew that it was easiest and safest to make money somewhere out of the city, away from neighbors' eyes. They cranked out currency from simple engraved plates, hung the money out to dry in the fresh air and took great pleasure in passing bills to people who may or may not have known the currency was fake.

Certainly, other counterfeiters must have toiled in obscurity and been plagued by boredom, but Lewis knew how to live. He was the subject of crazy poems written in contemporary newspapers: "I laugh in my sleeve, whilst I bid you adieu -/Farewell to your prison and Chambersburg too." And other outlaws remembered him fondly: "We had a number of little parties at the tavern," a barkeeper said, "and had great times. A number of the mountain ladies would come, and some of the men, and we would every now and then have a dance." Their life of crime, in retrospect, seems pure and wholesome, an innocent lark. Still, these men were robbing the government.

Tarnoff elegantly profiles two counterfeiters besides Lewis: Owen Sullivan, an obnoxious Irish drunk who got busy with some engraved plates around 1749 and made a fortune before he got caught; and Samuel Upham, a mild-mannered shopkeeper who may have thought of himself as a patriot by selling counterfeit Confederate bills (bearing his name and address!) that were used by Union soldiers to buy goods. The treasury of the Confederate States of America was deluged under a flood of such funny money.

There are two parts to this admirable and altogether charming book: a short, understandable history of American banking and finance over a period of a couple of hundred years and the profiles of those darling lawbreakers. All seemed to have had a wonderful time. I'd read "Moneymakers" again and again before handing it to my brother and uncle for their information and amusement.

See reviews books regularly for The Post. This Sunday in Outlook l The magnetic beauty of the North Pole. l The letters of Bruce Chatwin. l "A Widow's Story," by Joyce Carol Oates. l Socrates' search for the good life. l And how BP soiled America.


The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters

By Ben Tarnoff

Penguin. 351 pp. $27.95

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