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The E-Sylum:  Volume 11, Number 7, February 17, 2008, Article 28

EXCERPT: THE COUNTERFEIT HOUSE FROM BRIAN STARK'S 'GETTING TO THE POINT'

[While trolling the web for more information on the Counterfeit
House I stumbled upon a marvelous account from the book 'Getting
to the Point.: In a dozen pairs of shoes' by runner Brian R.
Stark, who chronicled his 8-month trek across America.
-Editor]

Arriving at the Counterfeit House a few miles later I noticed
that the house itself looked in disrepair.  There was no “open”
sign or other evidence that visitors were welcome.   I approached
a trailer in the side yard of the house and knocked on the door.
An older woman came to the door but upon seeing someone she
didn’t recognize, locked the storm door and waited to hear what
I wanted.  I explained that I was running across the country
and had been looking forward to touring the Counterfeit House
for 500 miles.  Unimpressed, she simply said, “Well, it’s closed.
The roof leaks and it’s not open to the public.”  I was heartbroken.
What mysterious things were inside that home just a few yards away?
Perhaps this woman was getting back into action and used her,
“Sorry, closed” speech to cover the printing operation going
on in the shadows of the old home.

When I pressed her for a few stories about the old days she
finally sized me up through the screen and gave in to
storytelling as she unlatched the door and came outside.  As
we sat down on the porch swing she slowly warmed up to me
and told me about this amazing site and her connection to it.

Oliver Tompkins built the “Counterfeit House” in 1840.  Mr.
Tompkins designed the home for the purpose of making counterfeit
50-cent pieces and $500 bills.  Just why he chose to make only
those two denominations is unclear.  The doors to the home had
special locks designed so that even when locked, “authorized”
people could enter by turning the knob a certain way.  Several
slots were carved away above interior doors.  These slots were
where the counterfeit money was stored in bags and then replaced
with real money when an exchange took place.  In the attic,
there is a small window in which Mr. Tompkins placed two lights.
One was green and the other red.  From the advantageous position
of the home on a high bluff, the building can be seen from the
Ohio River over one and a half miles away.  Boat captains who
knew of Mr. Tompkins’ business could look up the hillside and
if the green light was on, it meant that the coast was clear
and that they could come up to buy money.  If the red light
was on, however, it meant trouble and to stay away.  For
additional security, seven chimneys were erected in the home.
Of the seven, only two were actually used as such.  The other
five were false double chimneys that had stairways built inside
them.  Through an elaborate system of ducts, the two real
chimneys sent flumes of smoke out the five fake chimneys.
>From inside the fake chimney, and hidden behind a plume of
smoke, Mr. Tompkins could see who was coming up the hill.

In the back of the home was the actual counterfeiting room.
It was built with no doors or windows.  The only access to
the room was through a trap door in the ceiling and a trap
door in the floor.  The floor trap led to an escape tunnel
that went over one hundred yards underground “big enough
for a man and a horse,” to a nearby cliff, as a grainy
photocopied brochure stated.

As legend has it, Mr. Tompkins’ sister, Ann, tried to pass
one of his phony $500 bills in Cincinnati and that exchange
led police to follow her to her brother’s home.  When the
police were closing in, it is believed Mr. Tompkins and his
daughter escaped through the tunnel and blew it up on their
way out.  To end the police chase that lasted for several
years, Ann returned to the Counterfeit House with a coffin
that she said contained the remains of her deceased father.
A mock funeral was held in the home.  It is rumored that
Mr. Tompkins watched the funeral from one of his chimney
lookouts.

Though I never got to go inside, my new friend made the
history of the house come alive with her stories.  I did
notice, however, that she seemed tired of her connection
with the home.  She had lived in it for a number of years
with her husband who is now in a nursing home.  She obviously
felt pain and loneliness but said that she just got to the
point where she couldn’t take care of him any longer.  She
said that later in the day she was going to mow the yard.
I couldn’t imagine that she still took care of the daily
chores and I offered to do it for her but she declined.
When I asked why she was no longer giving tours of the home,
she explained that over the years the Counterfeit House has
suffered neglect and the roof needs to be replaced.

With such an unusual home like this and its historical
significance, I asked whether she had spoken to the local
historical society or the chamber of commerce to get help
with the building’s restoration.   That was apparently the
wrong thing to say as she replied, “Oh, those people don’t
want to help me.  They don’t want to give me anything for
the house.”  She went on to say that the roof is leaking
so badly it needs to be replaced before the entire inside
is ruined.  That would cost $5,000 alone.  I thought surely
there was some kind of grant or foundation nearby that would
be willing to fix the roof until the rest of the funds for
restoration could be raised.

By this point in her story, she was much friendlier and
even offered me food.  Grabbing my arm she asked,” Can I
get you a cheese sandwich?” and went inside towards the
kitchen before I could answer.  “How would you like a can
of Turkey Franks?  I’ve got Ice Cream! A Coke?”

Each time she would say something, she would turn around,
go inside and get it, and each time that she got something,
she reminded herself of something else to offer me.  “Here’s
a Hi-C Juice Box, that will be good.  Oh, and here’s a Reese’s
Cup bar, you’ll need that!”

We traded addresses and I was exceedingly pleased with my
visit to the Counterfeit House, even though I never saw
the inside.

It rained on and off during the day but I didn’t care.
As I ate my home-made lunch out of the rain under the steel
beams of a one-lane bridge, I began to fanaticize about
moving to Manchester, Ohio after my run and completely
renovating the Counterfeit House, giving tours, and telling
people how I came to know its history.  That dream occupied
my thoughts until I arrived in Bentonville, at which point
I had decided that I was going to excavate the original
tunnel by hand, replace the roof by myself, and mow my new
friend’s yard twice a week for free for the rest of my life.

To read the complete article, see:
Full Story

[This is a great yarn, but stories based on word of mouth
and grainy tourist attraction flyers aren't the most reliable
historical sources.  I checked the index of Stephen Mihm's
new book 'A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men,
and the Making of the United States' (Harvard University
Press, 2007), but I came up empty.  Can anyone refer us to
an authoritative publication about the house?

I contacted Stephen Mihm, and he wasn't aware of the Tompkins
house, although his book did discuss the James Brown house
outside Akron, Ohio (which was the home of another famous
counterfeiter and is also still standing).  He writes: "I
think the counterfeiter is one who was active in the post
Civil War era, judging from the Pinkerton's reference.  It's
a great story."  Mihm was familiar with The E-Sylum because
Dick Doty had sent him our earlier items relating to his
book.  Now Mihm's a subscriber - welcome! -Editor]

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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