Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters
Chat with Ben Tarnoff about his new book. Hosted by Elias Altman.
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 from Harvard in 2007 and lives in New York City. (Barnes & Noble)