It has been a while since I posted a Throwback Thursday, but as I am getting ready to dive back into my hero’s plot, I thought it would be fun to start a series titled “To Catch a Counterfeiter”. If would like to read a brief introduction to the Secret Service, click here.
Do you think you have what it takes to bring down a criminal ring of counterfeiters in the mid to late 1800’s? The challenges were immense and the resources limited.
The Secret Service was a federal organization, meaning their jurisdiction spread across the entire country. However, between 1875 and 1910, the division never employed more than 47 men, and the average was only 25. And between 1878 – 1893 when my story takes place, the average number of servicemen was well below that.
In addition to being stretched thin, Secret Service operatives were subordinate to policing institutions. They did not have the authority to search for evidence or even arrest criminals without the cooperation of the local police authorities.
These two major issues, along with insufficient funds could have crippled lesser men, but Secret Service Operatives were resourceful, determined, and loyal to their country.
Counterfeiting was no accidental crime. It was committed purposefully, requiring skill, equipment, and a network of likeminded criminals. Like all criminals, counterfeiters did not want to be caught and did whatever they could to protect their criminal network. It wasn’t uncommon for them to grease the wheels of corrupted police officers making it difficult as a Secret Service operative to determine who could be trusted.
Counterfeiters had fully developed criminal subcultures that were difficult to break into, and anyone could be a counterfeiter, from the lowly street peddler all the way up to the upper crusts of society. No level of income was exempt from potential involvement. Even a sweet old grandma down the street could be the ring leader. Networks could stretch the width of the United States and relied on a decentralized underworld structure that transcended community boundaries.
Bringing Criminals to Justice
The Secret service adopted a long-term strategy for suppressing counterfeiting. While the country was split into 11 districts, covering multiple states and territories, the first step of this plan was to concentrate its operatives in the largest urban centers: New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.
There, they sought to penetrate the criminal networks by starting at the lowest level and gradually working their way upward to identifying an arresting the manufacturers. Informants were crucial to their success, providing information as well as introductions into these secretive gangs of counterfeiters.
Good cases took weeks, even months, to develop, and required an enormous amount of patience and dedication. Although not usually dangerous, (the first operative to lose their life on the job was not until 1907), operatives stayed in peak condition to contend with criminals who did not wish to be caught.
Operatives were scrutinized by their superiors and were required to write extensive daily reports. Expenses were itemized, including information about the purchase of counterfeit notes, travel expenses, even their personal expenses. In 1875, Chief Washburn demanded that field operative Andrew Drummond obtain a refund from a Philadelphia telegraph operator who had overcharged him one cent. Ever dutiful, he obtained the refund.
Not only were their expenditures itemized, their days were detailed from waking moment until slumber. A typical report might say: “I got up at 5:30 AM, ate my breakfast, left home at 7 AM, arrived at the office at 8 AM, at 8:30 I went to First National Bank…., I returned home at 10 PM and went to bed at 11 PM.”
Though they faced internal and external challenges, through the use of informants, undercover work, and both investigative and instigative techniques, the Secret Service was able to reduce counterfeiting from the most prominent criminal activity in the United States prior to the Civil War to a spattering of successful occurrences by 1900.
What do you think? Do you have what it took to be a Secret Service operative? Which would be the most challenging for you? The internal or external challenges? Why?
Me? No way. Did you see that wake-up time? Uh uh, nope. Mornings and I have a mutual disdain for each other. It is only out of sheer love for my children that I am up in time to get them to school. When it comes to documenting details… forget it! I’m lucky if I remember to put an appointment on my calendar. As far as which would be most difficult for me? Definitely the internal bureaucracy. As for the external challenge? I might be lucky enough to be able to worm my way into a counterfeiting ring, but it would likely be how my heroine did. Completely on accident! (Although she is handling it way better than I would!)
Next Throwback Thursday (3/9/17): To Catch a Counterfeiter – Pt 2 – The Informant