Since Colonial times, the prescribed punishment for counterfeiting
was often death.
In antebellum America, however, counterfeiters often faced nothing
more than jail time and were often able to avoid even that punishment.
This was probably due, in part, to the fact that the usual victim of
the counterfeiter was not a government but a bank.
This changed at the beginning of the Civil War. Both governments
turned to the issuance of paper money to finance their war efforts and
counterfeiters quickly saw the advantage of making imitations of notes
that were issued in quantities numbering in the millions of dollars.
Unlike the federal government, which maintained relationships with
the established bank note companies, the Confederate government was
cut off from the traditional bank note providers from the onset of war.
money counterfeiting continues to this day
Federal authorities raided both National Bank Note Co. and American
Bank Note Co. in New York and ended their relationship with the
Confederate Department of the Treasury days after the start of the war
in April 1861.
Faced with the need for ever increasing amounts of paper money and a
stringent Union naval blockade, the Confederate Department of the
Treasury turned to local sources whose lithographed products were
sometimes difficult to tell apart from the numerous counterfeits that
began to appear.
The Confederate government had little room for error and so enacted
the death penalty for counterfeiters. According to the Richmond
Dispatch of Aug. 23, 1862, the first execution of a counterfeiter
in the Confederacy occurred on Aug. 22, 1862, when one John
Richardson, alias Louis Napoleon, was hanged by the neck until dead
after being convicted of “counterfeiting.”
Richardson was not, however, your typical counterfeiter. He and an
accomplice, George Elam, broke into the Richmond printing plant of
Hoyer & Ludwig, at the time one of the leading Confederate
printers, and ran off more than $1,600 in $100 notes from the
production lithographic stone.
They then forged the signatures based upon those found on a genuine
bill and started passing the forgeries. Technically then, the notes
were printed from a genuine lithographic stone, stolen, and then
illegally finished by adding forged signatures and serial numbers. As
such they were not counterfeits in the strictest traditional sense of
In the end, that technicality made no difference to John Richardson,
who “slipped the surly bonds of earth” for his transgressions.
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