One of the banes of money handlers in antebellum America was the
flood of altered notes. This brand of fraud was facilitated by the
fact that thousands of different bank note and scrip designs from
almost as many issuers were in circulation at any given point in time.
The good, the bad and the downright fanciful often circulated side by
side with virtually no available information to help in sorting out
As a result, some “artisans” would buy up leftover sheets of
unissued bank notes from failed banks for the value of the paper,
literally pennies on the dollar. This inventory, in turn, gave the
note alterer a stock of professionally engraved and printed notes to
work on. He then either mechanically or chemically removed all
references to the original bank name, state and city of issue. He now
had generic bank notes on which he printed a new bank name, city and
state with simple little printing plates.
Although such notes bore no resemblance to any genuine issues, no
one knew. If the spotlight of negative publicity got too close for
comfort, the note alterer simply moved on down the road and picked the
next bank he was going to target.
One defunct Indiana bank, the Pioneer Association of Lafayette,
Ind., is my candidate for the source of one of Indiana’s leading
exports in the decade leading up to the Civil War. More than 100
banks, mostly on the East Coast, were the targets of alterations made
from its notes. The $5 note was particularly favored because both the
city and state name were inconspicuous and easily removed.
The inscription pioneer association was, on the other hand,
prominent and left telltale white space in the red background tint
when the letters were erased. Shown are the original $5 note on the
Pioneer Association and a typical alteration to the Corn Exchange Bank
of Philadelphia. Note the white space around philadelphia and that
corn exchange bank isn’t aligned properly; tilting down to the right.
Not a perfect job, but probably good enough to pass to someone who was
distracted or in a hurry. And that was the goal — something just good
enough to pass — once.
Just imagine how many people would be taken today if we had a
similar situation rather than a highly standardized currency.
Wendell Wolka has been a paper money collector and educator for
more than 40 years. If you have questions or suggestions, you can
reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail at
Box 1211, Greenwood, IN 46142. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope
if a written response is required.