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Sneaky 'Moneymakers' Saw Counterfeiting As Craft

by Alice Gregory
Feb 9, 2011

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Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters is the conversational synthesis of its author's exhausting research. The book is Ben Tarnoff's first, and in it he has parsed through what must have been only intermittently charming primary sources. He's extracted the gold from the ore and presented it with narrative panache and an eye for fun historical facts.

While the book is decidedly scholarly, with specific historical characters and detailed tracings of centuries-old events, Tarnoff makes certain to peg his material to our currently constricted economy. Speaking of the Wall Street tycoons we blame for the 2008 recession, he writes, "These modern moneymakers probably don't realize they belong to an ancient American tradition."

Moneymakers focuses on three counterfeiters from American history: Owen Sullivan, a Colonial silversmith; David Lewis, a Pennsylvania prowler; and Samuel Curtis Upham, a California gold prospector cum Philadelphia shopkeeper. Tarnoff tells their stories with wit and enthusiasm, often urging us to imagine the speculative details of their lives by way of second-person narration. "The counterfeiters from America's past understood the power of confidence better than anyone," writes Tarnoff. "They manufactured money backed by nothing but belief, using craftsmanship and charisma to earn their victims' trust."

These counterfeiters, Tarnoff argues, saw themselves not as criminals, but as craftsmen — they had to hone the art of lead printing and etch their designs to convincing perfection. He schematizes their personality traits (impatient, impulsive) and unpacks key biographical facts, such as the choice to live in rural areas where test prints could be disposed of more inconspicuously.

Tarnoff shows restraint in quoting from his sources, which is a relief, considering their erratic historical syntax and obsolete diction. The specific documents he chooses to excerpt are humorously spelled and indiscriminately capitalized. Such documents are always a reminder of just how recently language, like currency itself, was regulated.

It wasn't until Lincoln's presidency, we learn, that a uniform currency was created in America, once the state-chartered banks that printed their own notes were phased out of existence: "By the time the federal government began regulating the money supply, there were more than ten thousand different kinds of notes circulating in the United States."

Amid protracted anecdotes and literary descriptions of old-time America, Tarnoff provides a real background in economic philosophy, listing the pros and cons of paper money and outlining the arguments for and against the theory that currency should be backed with not just faith but material worth. Money was not always the country's primary currency; in the past, it had taken more pragmatic forms — goods with inherent use-value, such as corn and tobacco.

"Counterfeiting," he writes, "gave enterprising Americans from the Colonial era onward a chance to get rich quick: to fulfill the promise of the American dream by making money, literally." Tarnoff does a great job at conflating — purposefully — the concepts of capital and capitol, and in so doing, he tells a distinctly American story, studded with facts that not only dazzle but recontextualize the current state of our economy.

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