The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters
By Ben Tarnoff
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594202872, 384pp.)
Publication Date: February 3, 2011
- Watch a video
The lively and enthralling tale of three notorious counterfeiters offers insights into the makings of the American financial mind.
In Moneymakers, Ben Tarnoff chronicles the lives of three colorful counterfeiters who flourished in early America, shedding fresh light on the country's financial coming of age. The speculative ethos that pervades Wall Street today, Tarnoff suggests, has its origins in the craft of counterfeiters who first took advantage of a turbulent American economy.
Few nations have as rich a counterfeiting history as the United States. Since the colonies suffered from a chronic shortage of precious metals, they were the first place in the Western world to use easily forged paper bills. And until the national currency was standardized in the last half of the nineteenth century, the United States had a dizzying variety of banknotes, making early America a counterfeiter's paradise.
In Moneymakers, Tarnoff recounts how three of America's most successful counterfeiters—Owen Sullivan, David Lewis, and Samuel Upham—each cunningly manipulated the political and economic realities of his day, driven by a desire for fortune and fame. Irish immigrant Owen Sullivan (c. 1720- 1756) owed his success not just to his hustler's charm and entrepreneurial spirit, but also to the weak law enforcement and craving for currency that marked colonial America. The handsome David Lewis (1788-1820) became an outlaw hero in backwoods Pennsylvania, infamous for his audacious jailbreaks and admired as a Robin Hood figure who railed against Eastern financial elites. Shopkeeper Samuel Upham (1819-1885) sold fake Confederate bills to his fellow Philadelphians during the Civil War as "mementos of the rebellion," enraging Southern leaders when Union soldiers flooded their markets with the forgeries.
Through the tales of these three memorable counterfeiters, Moneymakers spins the larger story of America's financial ups and downs during its infancy and adolescence, tracing its evolution from a patchwork of colonies to a powerful nation with a single currency. It was only toward the end of the Civil War that a strengthened federal government created the Secret Service to police counterfeiting, finally bringing the quintessentially American pursuit to an end. But as Tarnoff suggests in this highly original financial history, the legacy of early American counterfeiters lives on in the get-rich- quick culture we see on Wall Street today.
Ben Tarnoff has worked at Lapham's Quarterly and his writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 2007. He lives in New York City.
"What an ingenious idea for a book and what a rousing story! A truly gifted writer, Ben Tarnoff has brought to life three unforgettable characters while at the same time providing a window onto the tumultuous financial situation that characterized early American life."
– Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals
"Ben Tarnoff captures the wild early years of America's financial system through a delightful angle: the escapades of three counterfeiters. It's a colorful tale but also an enlightening one. It helps us understand our financial culture back then—and even today."
– Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for counterfeiters, ever since my father, a Secret Service agent, told me stories about how hard it was to catch them. Tarnoff tells the story of three colorful and almost lovable practitioners of the trade, in prose that is always accessible and sometimes downright lyrical. Along the way he drove me to the conclusion that all paper money is sorta fake. Tarnoff himself strikes me as the genuine article. I welcome his voice to that tiny chorus of writers who can make American history come alive without dumbing it down."
– Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and First Family: Abigail and John
"Ben Tarnoff's tales of financial skullduggery in early America are fascinating. Moneymakers is history as it should be written, brimming with the sort of vivid details that makes the past come alive."
– Liaquat Ahamed, author of Lords of Finance
"Lively and insightful, Moneymakers makes the most out of the entertaining tale of three master counterfeiters, using their careers to open an unexpected window on the making of the American economic imagination."
– T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
"Tarnoff, a first time author, expertly sketches biographical vignettes… what elevates Moneymakers from the novelty shelf is Tarnoff's skillful interweaving of the counterfeiter's work and America's revolving enchantment with and disapproval of paper money."
– The New York Times Book Review
"Ben Tarnoff's informative and entertaining new book Moneymakers is full of small bits of fascinating information about what it was like to print phony money in America in the years between 1750 and 1865."
– Washington Monthly
"Intriguing… Tarnoff fills the book with many little-known facts and stories that will please anyone interested in the "story behind the stories" in American history. VERDICT A fascinating read for devotees of the history of American crime and law enforcement agencies."
– Library Journal