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


The secret service bureau of the Treasury Department is not an old concern. It has not been in operation many years, compared to the existence of other bureaus, but it grows in importance each year. There are now a large number of investigators, by some called detectives, in the field, but the exact number is not known and will not be made public.

Counterfeiting money is an old offense. It was done before the United States became a government, but does not seem to have become so widespread until the United States began making its own paper money during the Civil War. Prior to that time the offenses had been dealt with by states and municipalities, with such help as the general government cared to give. The increase in the crime, however, caused recognition by Congress in 1860, when $10,000 was appropriated for its suppression to be expended under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury. This sum was paid out in rewards to private detectives, municipal officers and others instrumental in bringing to trial and punishment those engaged in making bogus money.

With the turning out of greenbacks by the government an increase in the appropriation and a more organized fight against counterfeiting were necessary. In 1864 Congress appropriated $100,000 and placed upon the solicitor of the treasury the responsibility and supervision of keeping down counterfeiting. This really inaugurated a methodical system of hunting and punishing counterfeiters. The solicitor of the treasury gathered about him a corps of men experienced in criminal investigations and set them to work. The plan worked so well that when John Sherman was secretary of the treasury he gave his approval to the organization of a separate bureau for suppressing the output of spurious currency. Under foreign governments the handling of counterfeiters is in control of a centralized police organization, which looks after all kinds of criminal offenses against the general governments. The one bureau has surveillance over criminals of every class. The tendency is in that direction in this government. The secret service bureau is now being used by a number of departments of the government.

The operations of the secret service are confined by law to the suppression of counterfeiting and the investigation of back pay and bounty cases. This is all the law permits the officials of the service to work on, but every day they are at work on other matters. That the law may not be openly violated the secret service operators assigned to do other work are practically taken off the secret service rolls and the department employing them is required to pay their salaries and expenses. Nearly all the departments now recognize the efficiency of the service and call upon the bureau at any time for a man. The Department of Justice has used a number of the operators in the last few years. In the course of time this will become so general that this government will probably build up a great criminal bureau, one that will supply officers for investigation of any crime. The Postoffice Department now has its own system of inspectors, who investigate violations of postal laws, and the plan of pitting specialist against specialist is regarded as perfect. This could be continued, though, if all the criminal organizations of the government were centralized.

The United States is divided into thirty secret service districts, each in charge of an operative who has under his direction as many assistants as the criminal activity of the section demands. The force is concentrated in one district if there are counterfeiting operations in progress, and then sent to another district as required. A written daily report, covering operations for twenty-four hours, is exacted from each district operative and from each man under him. These daily reports frequently contain many fascinating stories, many details of criminal life and espionage that would make columns. The reports received by the bureau in Washington are carefully filed away in the offices of the Treasury Department. Accompanying the reports are the photographs and measurements of every man arrested for counterfeiting. The Bertillon system of measurements is used by the service, as well as a plain indexed card system. The two are so complete that even without the name of a man his name and record can be obtained if his measurements are forwarded.

Hanging on the walls and in racks in the two rooms that are occupied by the chief and his two assistants are the photographs of every known counterfeiter in the country. Among these are the faces of William E. Brockway, the veteran dean of counterfeiters; Emanuel Ninger, the most expert penman the service ever knew, and Taylor and Bredell, who hold the record as the cleverest counterfeiters in history next to Brockway. There are hundreds of others who have at some time or other gotten into the clutches of the service, many of them the most desperate characters. Some of these have taken human life with the same ease they would make a paper dollar or a silver coin.

The development of modern processes of photolithography, photogravure, and etching has revolutionized the note counterfeiting industry. So famous a counterfeiter as Brockway realized this. In the old days all counterfeiting plates were hand engraved and it took from eight to fifteen months to complete a set. Now this part of the work may be done in a few hours.

Information as to the personnel and operations of the secret service is carefully withheld from the public. The names of the heads of the various districts and the operators are unknown and are seldom published unless in case of the arrest of a counterfeiter and the the facts get into the newspapers. The bureau is managed by John E. Wilkie, chief. He has held the position since 1898, when he succeeded Chief Hazen. Mr. Wilkie is a newspaper man having held responsible positions on many large papers. He began his career as a reporter and worked his way up to city editor of one of the big Chicago papers. He has a great “nose” for criminal investigation, and his work is regarded as brilliant.

All the United States notes are printed in sheets of four notes of one denomination on each sheet. Each note is lettered in its respective order, in the upper and lower corners diagonally opposite, A, B, C, and D, and this is the system for numbering notes: All numbers, on being divided by 4 and leaving 1 for a remainder, have the check letter A; 2 remainder, B; 3 remainder, C; even numbers, or with no remainder, D. Any United States note the number upon which can be divided by 4 without showing the above result is a counterfeit, and while this rule is not infallible in all instances it will be found of service in the detection of counterfeits.

Compared with a dozen or so years ago, there is nothing like the counterfeiting going on in this country. Shortly after the war the country was practically flooded with it, but so perfect is the machinery of the secret service and so successful have its officers been in recent years in unearthing the big plants and their operators, and placing the latter behind the bars, that counterfeiting has almost ceased.

The receipts of subsidiary counterfeit coins at the subtreasury at New York have been in recent times inconsequential. Some time ago an Italian silversmith, who was an expert coin counterfeiter, was captured, and the destruction of his plant and his subsequent conviction had a wholesome effect upon his fellow countrymen, some of whom have come over to the United States for the express purpose of counterfeiting its silver coins. Only five counterfeit issues of notes made their appearance during the year in question, and of these three were new and two were reissues of old counterfeits.

This shows how well the counterfeit situation, as it were, is kept in check and under control by the government. By some it is supposed that most of our counterfeiters come from abroad, but this is not strictly accurate, though many of those who attempt to imitate our silver dollar and the subsidiary coin issues hail from Italy and Russia.

In order to set up a first-class counterfeit shop for the turning out of good paper counterfeits, there are so many indispensable requisites on the part of the spurious money-makers that they get discouraged or caught in most instances almost at the very outset of their would-be easy money-making careers. All of the good engravers who are capable of turning out good plates are more or less under the constant supervision of the secret service officers, while the paper supply, or its possible supply, is equally well watched.

Because gold and silver coins pass current out on the Pacific coast, where notes do not yet circulate freely as in the east, California has more counterfeiting cases than any other state in the Union, with Pennsylvania, with its large foreign population in the mining regions, a close second.

A moderately deceptive $5 silver certificate was made in Italy, imported into this country by various gangs of Italians and passed quite extensively in the eastern states, but the secret service officers quickly got on to the source of issue, and made many arrests and secured convictions. So closely did they hit the trail of a fairly good counterfeit note issued in the west that they got the maker and passer arrested and convicted and the plates captured so quickly that it must have caused him acute pain. It was the same with a $10 note of deceptive workmanship which appeared in New York. Only three of these notes were circulated.

Of course there are plenty of counterfeit notes and coins in circulation if there were not the secret-service officers would have an easy time of it but the output has largely decreased as compared with former years, and, unless all signs fail, it is likely to go still lower, as the secret service officers become each year more expert in detecting this class of crime and putting the criminals away where they will serve the state the best. Gold certificates issued below the denomination of $20, are numbered the same as treasury notes and are check-lettered in their order upon each sheet.

The only denominations of the gold certificates which have been counterfeited are the issues for $20 and $100, respectively, as the gold certificates present a pretty tough counterfeiting proposition, though most of the denominations of the various issues of the silver certificates have been more or less extensively counterfeited, perhaps the issues for $5 and $10, respectively, being the most favored at the counterfeiter’s hands, by reason of the ready circulation of these two issues.

The main deterrents to counterfeiting nowadays are, first, lack of good engravers who will take the risk; second, the difficulty in the making and the assembling of first-class plates, and third, the difficulty in the securing of suitable paper. As to the last, the fiber paper now in use with the two silk threads running through the note lengthwise presents a hard proposition for imitation, and lastly, and an important provision, is the fact the public is now pretty well educated on the question of counterfeits, and know how a spurious bill both looks and feels. As for the bank tellers, they scent counterfeits by instinct. Things have changed for the counterfeiter, too, and they are not for the best from his point of view.

The secret service of the United States is without a question the best in the world.