"The terrible rush of metropolitan life: those busy New-Yorkers," (1915). Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.
In December 1866, Mark Twain left San Francisco for New York. Like generations of transplanted Westerners then and since, he found life in the big city a little disorienting. He described his feelings in a letter to the San Francisco-based Alta California.
There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever - a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing. He is a boy in a candy-shop - could choose quickly if there were but one kind of candy, but is hopelessly undetermined in the midst of a hundred kinds. A stranger feels unsatisfied, here, a good part of the time. He starts to a library; changes, and moves toward a theatre; changes again and thinks he will visit a friend; goes within a biscuit-toss of a picture-gallery, a billiard-room, a beer cellar and a circus, in succession, and finally drifts home and to bed, without having really done anything or gone anywhere. He don’t go anywhere because he can’t go everywhere, I suppose. This fidgety, feverish restlessness will drive a man crazy, after a while, or kill him. It kills a good many dozens now - by suicide. I have got to get out of it.
The paperback of my book, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers, comes out today. You can buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or your local bookstore.
Here’s an excerpt:
On a November night in 1876, two men passed in silence under the granite obelisk that rose a hundred feet above the tomb of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Below the obelisk stood a statue of the slain president, the bronze silhouette glistening in the moonlight as the men moved swiftly by. Trying to make as little noise as possible, they entered Lincoln’s burial chamber and approached the marble sarcophagus. The men drew their crowbars and, straining against the handles, managed to push the large tablet that covered the coffin over the side. Inside was the cedar casket that held Lincoln’s corpse. Reaching into the sarcophagus, they began lifting the wooden box.
Suddenly a gunshot sounded outside. The men froze: the first shot was followed by another, then another, until the volley seemed to come from every direction. They dropped the casket and darted out of the tomb, fleeing the cemetery as bullets whistled past Lincoln’s final resting place.
The men were caught several days later. They confessed to trying to kidnap Lincoln’s body, which they planned to exchange for the freedom of their gang leader, a counterfeiter named Ben Boyd. The Secret Service, which had nabbed Boyd a year earlier, learned of the plan, and sent agents to lie in wait for the grave robbers. The officers sat watching the tomb for hours before the two men arrived. But before they could arrest the criminals, one of their pistols went off by accident. The others, thinking they were under attack, started firing wildly and the robbers escaped in a hail of bullets.
The irony of the scene was surely lost on the raiders of Lincoln’s tomb. The robbers hoped to exchange a counterfeiter’s freedom for the remains of a man who had done more than any other president in history to eliminate counterfeiting. Maybe they didn’t know enough history to make the connection; the Secret Service agents lying in the bushes nearby certainly did. Before the war, state-chartered banks across the country printed notes of various designs and denominations, which made counterfeiting fairly easy. Under Lincoln, the government began phasing out these banks and creating a uniform national currency. A few months after Lincoln’s death in 1865, the Secret Service was created to crack down on counterfeiters. Over the next several decades, the agency aggressively pursued its task, and by the end of the century, counterfeit cash amounted to just a slim fraction of the currency in circulation. The counterfeiters who flourished in the nation’s infancy and adolescence would almost entirely disappear, victims of an unprecedented centralization of federal authority. The golden age of counterfeiting was over.
A “continental” designed by Benjamin Franklin.
In 1775, the American Revolution began, and the Continental Congress started printing paper currency (“continentals”) to help fund it. They asked Benjamin Franklin to design the notes. Never one to squander a potential platform for his views, Franklin emblazoned the notes with emblems and mottos intended to instill republican virtues of hard work and self-reliance. The bill above says “Mind Your Business;” his six-dollar bill had the Latin word Perseverando (“Perseverance”), while his one-dollar bill read Depressa Resurgit (“Though Crushed, it Recovers”). As both elegantly executed works of art and cleverly disguised propaganda, Franklin’s continentals were the most visually interesting paper money that America had ever seen.
Ronald Reagan plays a Secret Service agent who busts a Mexican counterfeiting ring in Code of the Secret Service (1939).
To promote my upcoming paperback, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Early American Moneymakers, I thought I’d post a few excerpts from the book. So, here goes.
Long before the Secret Service protected Presidents, they protected American currency from counterfeiters. Founded in 1865, the agency was pretty controversial from the start: a notoriously rough bunch, with a loose interpretation of civil liberties and an aggressive (occasionally illegal) law enforcement approach. Their first chief was a man named William Patrick Wood: a fickle, despotic man with an infinite appetite for intrigue.
The challenges that Wood faced weren’t new. Moneymakers had been dodging the law for a long time, and the ways they did it hadn’t changed much. Law enforcement, in the eighteenth century as in the nineteenth, was mostly local, focused on policing individual communities, not dismantling broader criminal enterprises.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if Wood had been allowed to bypass local authorities in pursuing counterfeiters wanted for federal crimes. But since the Treasury, not Congress, created the Secret Service, its operatives didn’t have the power to make arrests or obtain search warrants. They had to collaborate with local police and federal marshals, who were not only fiercely territorial, but often had an interest in preserving the status quo. Many city cops cut lucrative deals with counterfeiters.
So Wood, always eager to exceed his mandate, came up with a way to circumvent the process. He would arrange for one of his men to buy a packet of counterfeit cash, and station other operatives nearby to watch the transaction. Then they would swoop in on the seller, making a citizen’s arrest on the basis of having observed a crime being committed. Other times Wood dispensed with this pretext altogether and seized suspects and evidence by force.
If the obstacles to catching counterfeiters weren’t new, neither were the techniques for doing it. Wood’s background in espionage helped: bringing down moneymaking rings required infiltrating them, the same way Union agents infiltrated the Confederacy during the Civil War. This meant using informants. Informants helped secure convictions by establishing intent: they could testify that the defendant knew the money was fake and intended to pass it. Informants also offered a way to gain access to the upper reaches of a counterfeiting operation. The authorities would arrest a passer, promise him money or immunity in exchange for cooperation, and then use him to burrow deeper into an organization, identifying distributors, manufacturers, and other principal players.
Wood absorbed these lessons thoroughly. He didn’t just recruit counterfeiters as informants, he hired them as full-time employees. For a wage of three dollars a day, they supplied information that led to arrests and convictions, and helped build cases against bigger targets further up the food chain. Wood didn’t shrink from colluding with unsavory characters; many of his own operatives came from the same milieu. Almost half of the original Secret Service team had criminal records. With little oversight from Wood, Secret Service operatives made illegal arrests, solicited bribes in exchange for protecting criminals, and sold bad bills they seized from counterfeiters.
Despite his men’s questionable methods, Wood delivered results. In its first year, the Secret Service arrested more than two hundred counterfeiters. His aggressive leadership laid the foundation for counterfeiting’s dramatic decline. With the Secret Service safeguarding the nation’s currency, counterfeiting lost its allure. The risks simply weren’t worth it. While a few continued forging on a small scale, the national counterfeiting industry crumbled under the force of the federal assault.
Group of “contrabands” in Virginia, May 1862. Photograph by James F. Gibson.
In the opening months of the Civil War, three slaves escaped. This wasn’t anything new; in fact, it happened so often that in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law to make it easier for slaveholders to recover their “property.” The difference, as Adam Goodheart discusses in his 1861: The Civil War Awakening, was that now the North and South were at war. The escaped slaves showed up at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia, and provided valuable intelligence about the Confederate fortifications they’d been building. When a Confederate officer arrived at Fort Monroe to demand the slaves be returned, the Union commander, Benjamin Franklin Butler, came up with a brilliant legal loophole that changed the course of the war. As he recalled in his memoir:
"What do you mean to do with those negroes?" [said Major Carey, the Confederate officer.]
"I intend to hold them," said I.
"Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?"
"I mean to take Virginia at her word, as declared in the ordinance of secession passed yesterday. I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."
"But you say we cannot secede," he answered, "and so you cannot consistently detain the negroes."
"But you say you have seceded, so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”
"Contrabands" flocked to the Union lines by the thousands, serving as informants, scouts, laborers, and when the Army began recruiting blacks in 1863, soldiers. They helped pave the way for emancipation. Their status as property, as something that could be confiscated because they helped the enemy fight the war—like a cask of gunpowder—ironically helped make them free. The Civil War, especially for the North, was all about drift. What started as a conservative war—a war to preserve the Union as it existed—became a radical one, involving the abolition of slavery and the annihilation of the Southern way of life. “Contrabands” were the first crucial step.
Printing press in Brattleboro, Vermont, late nineteenth century. Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.
Imagine an industry where seventy percent of your products lose money. You knit ten different types of wool socks. Seven don’t sell enough to cover the cost of the wool, while the other three are so popular they’re capable of keeping the whole enterprise afloat. This is the basic math of book publishing, a business model that’s evolved over the course of the last couple centuries and has alternately baffled, unnerved, and outraged the long list of hugely intelligent people who have given their lives to it. The “worst business in the world,” Doubleday’s cofounder Walter Hines Page called it, and even in flush times, the refrain is usually the same. It’s hard to think of another industry so perpetually prone to grumbling and self-hatred. As early as 1896, Publisher’s Weekly wondered whether the book business was “A Doomed Calling”—a question that, by the late nineteenth century, had already become a cliché.
Recently, the doomsaying has reached a fever pitch over the threat posed by e-books. Publishers fear that companies like Amazon will erode their margins by setting unreasonably low prices for digital books. Even more frightening is the possibility that the handful of bestselling authors who keep the industry solvent will start self-publishing through digital platforms, leaving publishers out in the cold. The apocalypse of American book publishing, after a hundred or so years of false alarms, seems finally to have arrived.
Read the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly's Roundtable blog.
Ten thousand people pack into Madison Square Garden to hear William Jennings Bryan speak in 1906. Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.
Is Occupy Wall Street the start of a new Populism for the new Gilded Age? Today’s Los Angeles Times has an interesting op-ed by Christopher Ketcham:
But perhaps the closest historical parallel is with the Populist movement of the 1890s, which, like Occupy Wall Street, was a broad, economics-driven revolt that targeted a predatory class of corporate capitalists — the robber barons of the Gilded Age.
The Populists drove the Progressive era of reform of the early 1900s. They sought to dismantle the centralized power of corporations in the economy and return economic liberty to individuals and small business. They envisioned a graduated income tax, the secret ballot, the regulation of banks. It remains to be seen if today’s 99 Percenters will be as successful at transforming the political discourse.
The Populists formed a political party with a specific platform — the People’s Party. They ran candidates who won office; they formed real-world banking and agricultural cooperatives to challenge the hegemony of corporate capitalism.
In Liberty Square, the protesters say that they have no intention of disbanding; that they’re preparing for a long, cold winter. But will their numbers increase, or will their resolve fizzle in the histrionics of street theater? Will they organize or merely proselytize? Most important, can they move enough of today’s silent majority — 99 Percenters all — off the sidelines and into the fray?
Walt Whitman and his (likely) lover Bill Duckett, in the days before Instagram.
The word “homosexual” didn’t appear in print until 1869, when a Hungarian writer named Karl-Maria Kertbeny wrote an anonymous pamphlet arguing against a proposed section of the Prussian legal code that would make homosexual acts illegal. Kertenby’s close friend had been gay, and he’d committed suicide after an extortionist threatened to expose him. Kertbeny wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.
For most of its history, homosexuality had a language problem. Gay people lived in a world with no words for what they were, where homosexual love wasn’t only forbidden but invisible—enciphered in metaphor, perhaps, but never plainly discussed.
Enter Walt Whitman. In the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, he published his "Calamus" poems: a thinly veiled celebration of love between men.
We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Whitman had his own word for homosexuality: “adhesiveness.” He borrowed the term from phrenology: a popular pseudoscience based on the idea that the size and shape of a person’s skull said something fundamental about their character. According to your cranial measurements, you could be classified as “adhesive”: which meant you were highly prone to same-sex friendships. As science, phrenology was bullshit—but, by linking sexuality to an unalterable fact of physiology, Whitman was making a radical point: he was born this way.
A pair of excellent signs from the Occupy Wall Street camp at Liberty Park.
Sometimes the language of protest grows a little stale. Many oldies-but-goodies like “people over profits” have been around since the Sixties. So I was excited to find the two signs above at Occupy Wall Street. James Madison and Adam Smith—the real Adam Smith, not the one dreamt up by free-market fundamentalists—both have plenty of pithy quotes that make good fodder for protest signage. Here’s a few:
A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. - James Madison
No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged. - Adam Smith
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. - James Madison
With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves. - Adam Smith
The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted. - James Madison
All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. - Adam Smith
Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant. - James Madison