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.