Read CHAPTER VI of Disputed Handwriting, free online book, by Jerome B. Lavay, on


A professional forgery band consists of first, a capitalist or backer; second, the actual forger, known among his associates as the “scratcher”; third, the man who acts as confidential agent for the forger, known as the “middle man”; fourth, the man who presents the forged paper at the bank for payment, known as the “layer down” or presenter.

When it is necessary to have a capitalist or backer connected with a band he furnishes the funds for the organization, frequently lays out the plans for work and obtains the genuine paper from which forgeries are made. He will, when necessary, find the engraver, the lithographer and most important of all, the “professional forger,” who will do the actual forgery work.

The professional forger has, as a rule, considerable knowledge of chemicals, which enables him to alter checks, drafts, bills of exchange, letters of credit, or to change the names on registered bonds. He is something of an artist, too, for with a fine camel’s hair brush he can restore the most delicate tints in bank safety paper, which tints have been destroyed by the use of acids. In fact no bank safety paper is a protection against him.

When the amount of the genuine draft or check is perforated in the paper, certain forgers have reached such perfection in their work as to enable them to cut out the perforation, put in a patch about the same as a shoemaker does with a shoe and then skilfully color the patch to agree with the original, so that it becomes a very difficult matter to detect the alterations even with the use of a microscope. This done and the writing cleaned off the face of the draft, check, letter of credit, or bill of exchange, with only the genuine signature left and the tints on the paper restored, the forger is prepared to fill up the paper for any amount decided upon.

The backer or capitalist is rarely known to any member of the band outside the “go-between,” whom he makes use of to find the forger. He very rarely allows himself to become known to the men who “present” the forged paper at the banks. If the forgery scheme is successful, the backer receives back the money paid out for the preparation of the work as well as any amount he may have lent the “band” to enable them to open accounts at banks where they propose placing the forged paper. He is also allowed a certain percentage on all successful forgeries, this percentage running from 20 to 30 per cent; but where the backer and forger are working together, their joint percentage is never less than 50 per cent.

It is an invariable rule followed by the backer and forger that in selecting a middle man they select one who not only has the reputation of being a “stanch” man, but he must also be a man who has at least one record of conviction standing against him. This is for the additional protection of the backer and forger, as they know that in law the testimony of an accomplice who is also a former convict must be strongly corroborated to be believed.

Out of their first successful forgeries a certain sum from each man’s share is held by the middle man to be used in the defense of any member of the band who may be arrested on the trip. This money is called “fall money” and is used to employ counsel for the men under arrest or to do anything for them that may be for their interest.

When a “middle man” is exceedingly cautious and not entirely satisfied with the “presenters” he will sometimes have an assistant. This is where the “shadow” comes in. This shadow will under the direction of the “middle man” follow the “presenter” into the bank and report fully on his actions. He sometimes catches the “presenter” in an attempt to swindle his companions by claiming that he did not get the money, but had to get out of the bank in a hurry and leave the check or draft, as the paying teller was suspicious.

A “presenter” caught at this trick is sometimes sent into a bank to present a forged check where the bank has been previously warned of his coming by an anonymous letter. This is done as a punishment for his dishonesty and as a warning to others against treachery.

That the professional forger eventually profits but little by his ill-gotten gains is well illustrated by the fate of the most of them, who end their days in prison.

In the case of a forgery there are a dozen methods for detecting it in the quality of the ink, in the quality of paper, in microscopic examination of the irregularities in penmanship, in “labored” tracings that show exaggerated tracings, in composite photography, and by a dozen little common-sense observations that scarcely can be controverted.

Some forgeries have been detected by the mere water-mark in the paper. Sittl of Munich is quoted as having had referred to him a possible forgery of a document dated 1868. Holding the paper to the light, he found as a water-mark in it the figure of the eagle of the German Empire a symbol which had not been adopted at all until after the French war of 1870.

The magnifying glass is depended upon for many disclosures of forgeries. The unduly serrated edges of the ink lines are quickly marked in a forgery, though under certain circumstances a situation may be such as to force a person into this laborious writing; he may be cramped up in bed, writing on a book held in his lap, or he may be in a mental strain that produces it.

There are minds so easily impressed with a sense of responsibility that the writing or signing of any paper important in its bearing on the writer or his property will cause him to disguise his hand to some extent involuntarily, as many persons disguise their features involuntarily when being photographed.

As to signatures especially, attention is called to the “tremor of fraud,” which is to be detected by the microscope, and stress is laid upon the necessity of observing just where this tremor falls. If it is in a difficult flourish of the signature and not elsewhere it indicates fraud; or if it be tremulous to the eye, in imitation of the signature of an aged person, a smooth, curved line may be the index of “the difficulty experienced by a good penman in feigning to be a bad one.”

The microscope is useful and valuable in determining whether erasures have been made on paper. Also it will discover which of two crossed lines was last written. It may determine whether the ragged edges of the ink lines are those of fraud, illiteracy, or old age.

The practice of forging the names of depositors in banks to checks, drafts, notes, and in fact to all papers representing a money value, has been practiced, probably, since the creation of man. Of course the law recognizes forgery as a serious crime, and everywhere the punishment is severe. In the seventeenth century it was a capital offense in England, and there were more persons executed for that crime than there were for murder. Notwithstanding the rigorous penalty prescribed in every state in the Union, forgery is carried on to an alarming extent, sometimes by trusted employees, as well as professionals.

The raising of checks and drafts is the principal method employed by the men who make a business of defrauding the unwary. The simplest way of explaining the operation of raising a draft or check is as follows:

Two men are necessary for success at any given point, and hence they are not so liable to detection as if a number of confederates were engaged. It is the business of one of these men to enter a bank, and purchase a draft on New York City, for a certain amount of money, usually about fifteen hundred dollars, and a short time after this another draft would be procured from the same bank for a small amount, seldom over ten dollars. These drafts procured, they are handed to the “raiser,” or the man who is to alter the paper for their dishonest purposes. In a short time the small draft is raised to be a perfect duplicate of the large one, in every sense of the word, both as regards number, amount, place of presentation, etc.

This work of alteration being fully completed, one of the men would then remove to another city, and forward the “raised” draft to New York, by express, for collection, or else would go to that city himself, and have it cashed through some respectable person. Immediately on receiving the money he would telegraph his companion, in words previously agreed upon, informing him of the successful result of the first move. The other confederate, upon the receipt of this information, would at once go to the bank where the drafts had been procured, and presenting the genuine draft for the large amount of money, would request that the money be refunded, giving as an excuse for not using it, either that he could not be identified in the New York bank, and for that reason could not collect it, or that the business he had procured it for had not been consummated. The bank officials would recognize him as the person who purchased the draft, and would unhesitatingly hand him back the money which he had paid. Of course he would quickly disappear from the locality, never to be seen in it again and the forgery would not be discovered until, in the due course of ordinary business, when the other draft for the same amount would be returned for payment.

A favorite trick of forgers, and check and draft raisers, who operate on an extensive scale, is for one of them to open an office in a city, and represent himself as a cattle dealer, lumber merchant, or one looking about for favorable real-estate investments. His first move is to open a bank account, and then works to get on friendly terms with the cashier. He always keeps a good balance sometimes way up in the thousands and deports himself in such a manner as to lead to the belief that he is a highly honorable gentleman, and the bank officials are led to the belief that he will eventually become a very profitable customer.

Occasionally he has a note, for a small amount to begin with, always first-class, two-name paper, and he never objects usually insists in paying a trifle more than the regular discount. At first the bank officials closely examine the paper offered, and of course find that the endorsers are men of high standing, and then their confidence in the “cattle king” is unbounded. Gradually the notes increase in amount, from a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, and from fifteen hundred to two or three thousand. The notes are promptly paid at maturity. After the confidence of the bank people has been completely gained, the swindler makes a strike for his greatest effort. He comes in the bank in a hurry, presents a sixty-day note, endorsed by first-class men, for a larger amount than he has ever before requested, and it generally happens that he gets the money without the slightest difficulty. Then he has a sudden call to attend to important business elsewhere. When the note or notes mature, it is discovered to be a clever forgery. This has been done time and again, and it is rare that the forger has been apprehended.

The forgery of checks is a common offense. It takes more than one man to successfully perform this operation. The forger himself is known as the “scratcher,” or the expert penman of the party. The “middle man” is the fellow who conducts the business negotiations, ostensibly as a merchant, and the “layer-down” is the man who presents the check to the bank and secures the cash. The middle man must have a pleasing address, and be thoroughly posted on the commercial news of the day, and it is requisite that the layer-down be well dressed, quick witted, and possessed of an unlimited amount of polite assurance, a cheek that never pales and an eye that never droops. In selecting a person to fill this important position, the forger prefers to have a man who has, at some time or other, been convicted of crime, so that in case of discovery, and the turning of state’s evidence by the layer-down (who is always the man caught) his evidence will not have weight with a jury. The latest mode is for the forger to imitate a private check by the photo-lithographic method, after having obtained a signed check.

The signature, after being photographed, is carefully traced over with ink, and the body of the check is filled up for whatever amount is desired. The maker of the check is requested to identify the person who holds it, and as a general thing he does not wait to see the money paid. The moment his back is turned, the layer-down palms the small check and presents the large one. This way of obtaining money is without the assistance of a middle man. Private marks on a check are no safeguards at all, although a great many merchants believe they can prevent forgery by making certain dots, or seeming slips of the pen, which are known only to the paying teller and themselves. This precaution becomes useless when the forger uses the camera. Safe breakers are often called upon by forgers and asked to secure a sheet of checks out of a checkbook. When this is accomplished a few canceled checks are taken at the same time. These are given to the forger and he fills them up for large amounts, after tracing or copying the signature. The safe burglars receive a percentage on the amount realized. If your safe vault or desk is broken open, where your check-book is kept, carefully count the leaves in your check-book, also your canceled checks. If any are missing, notify the banks, and begin using a different style of check immediately. The sneak thief, while plying his trade, often secures unsigned bonds of some corporation which has put the signed bonds in circulation, leaving the rest unsigned until the next meeting of the directors.

Frequently unsigned bonds are left in the bank vault for safe keeping. These are stolen and sent to the penman or “scratcher.” Then a genuine signed bond is purchased, from which the signatures are copied and then forged. The same trick has been played on unsigned bank notes, but on the bank notes almost any name will do, as no person looks at the signature, as long as the note appears genuine.

The ingenuity of a countless army of sharpers is constantly at work in this country, devising plans to obtain funds dishonestly, without work, but, in fact, they often expend more time, skill, and labor in carrying out their nefarious schemes than would serve to earn the sum they finally secure, by honest labor. Every banker must, therefore, be on his guard, and should acquaint himself with the most approved means of detecting and avoiding the most common swindlers. This is just as necessary as it is to lock his books and cash in his safe before going home.

Next to the counterfeiter, the forger is the most dangerous criminal in business life. Transactions involving the largest sums of money are completed on the faith in the genuineness of a signature. Hence every effort should be made to acquire the art of detecting an imitation at a glance. This can be done only by considerable practice. It is asserted that every signature has character about it which cannot be perfectly copied, and which can always be detected by an experienced eye. This is problematical, but certainly a skilful bank teller can hardly be deceived by the forgery of a name of a well-known depositor.

A banker should accustom himself to scrutinize closely the signatures of those with whom he deals. He should cut off their names from the backs of checks and notes, and paste them in alphabetical order in an autograph book devoted to that purpose, and compare any suspicious signature with the genuine one.

In consequence of the numerous frauds committed by forged checks, some of the European bankers have adopted the custom of sending with their letter of advice a photograph of the person in whose favor the credit has been issued, and to stop the payment when the person who presents himself at the bank does not resemble the picture. If this practice were to become universal, the object of preventing frauds could be well attained.

Instead of the signature being forged, the amount of a check, etc., may be altered. This is done either by changing the letters and figures, or by the use of an erasive fluid. The perfection with which the latter alteration can be performed is so complete that the most skilful eye cannot detect the imposture. A person may deposit a hundred dollars with a house in New York, and obtain their draft for that amount on Philadelphia; he then alters the one hundred to one thousand by erasing a portion of the letters and figures and cashes the draft at a broker’s. The latter recognizes the signature, and has no suspicion of the fraud until too late.

The means to secure entire protection against this is by using an ink which cannot be erased by chemicals, or at least such chemicals as are familiarly known to the class of criminals who make this a specialty. Every well-regulated bank now uses a machine for punching or perforating a series of small holes in the check, so that any increase or decrease of the number of letters written is immediately detected.

Many banks have been swindled in the following manner: A check, say for ten dollars, is obtained from a depositor of a bank, and a blank check exactly like the filled-in check is secured. The two checks are laid one upon the other, so that the edges are exactly even. Both checks are then torn irregularly across, and in such a way that the signature on the filled check appears on one piece and the amount and name of the payee on the other. The checks having been held together while being torn, of course one piece of blank check will exactly fit the other piece of the filled check. The swindler then fills in one piece of the blank check with the name of the payee and an amount to suit himself, takes it with the piece of the genuine check containing the signature to the bank, and explains that the check was accidently torn. The teller can put the pieces together, and as they will fit exactly, the chances are that he will think that the pieces are parts of the same check, and becomes a victim of the swindle. The trick, of course, suggests its own remedy.

It is a well-known fact that there are banks in the country that have paid thousands of dollars on raised checks, and decided that it was cheaper for them to pocket the loss than to have the facts become known.

The New York Court of Appeals holds that the maker of a check is obliged to use all due diligence in protecting it, and the omission to use the most effectual protection against alterations is regarded as an evidence of neglect.

Here are a few points about raising checks and drafts that should be carefully noted: To successfully raise a check or draft requires so much less skill or art than to accomplish a forgery that it has of late become alarmingly prevalent. Often where a check or draft is printed on ordinary paper the original figures are removed by some chemical process so skilfully that no alteration can be detected, even with a strong magnifying glass.

It is not uncommon, when filling up checks or drafts, to take another pen, and with red ink write the amount across the face of the paper, and again make the figures in and through the signature. All these precautions may make tampering with the amount more difficult for a clumsy novice, but it only imposes a few moments’ more work upon the accomplished manipulator. He takes his strong solution of chloride of lime and rain water, or other prepared chemicals, and with a pen suited to the purpose, by neutralizing and abstracting the coloring properties of the ink, he carefully obliterates such portions of the lines in the figures and written amounts as suits his purpose, then easily makes the alteration he desires, the red ink coming out as readily as black. And if the tint or coloring of the paper should have been affected by his cautious touch, he takes the proper shade of crayon or water-color, and carefully replaces the original shade.

Now, the signature not being touched, but remaining genuine, and the payer not being supposed to know who wrote the check, but only who signed it, he pays the amount specified, and the law holds the “maker of the check responsible when there is nothing in its appearance to excite suspicion, and the signature is proven genuine.”