For some time I've been wanting to get around to writing up a review of what I found to be a great book. Moneymakers by Ben Tarnoff is a very interesting read and I'd consider it a must for any collector of U.S. colonial, Confederate or obsolete banknotes.
Honestly, I wasn't sure what I'd make of this book at first. My library shelves are already well stocked with books relating to counterfeiting, and my fear was that a writer from outside the hobby would simply rehash many of the same stories we've read before. Tarnoff is a 2007 graduate of Harvard University, but his book is a great debut for a new writer on numismatic topics. His viewpoint is that of an historian, and he does a wonderful job of placing the events and artifacts in historical context.
The book is nicely laid out in three sections, one each dealing with counterfeiting in the colonial, antebellum and Civil War eras. To provide a focus and narrative explaining the larger social, political and economic context of each era, Tarnoff builds each section around the tale of one standout individual. This is an effective device; it eliminates the clutter of history while still illuminating the situations, personalities and motivations that shaped the times.
The eras are represented by Irish immigrant Owen Sullivan (1720-1756), outlaw hero David Lewis (1788-1820) and shopkeeper Samuel Upham (1819-1885). Only Upham is generally known to numismatists today, for his replicas of Confederate currency. But all three were notorious in their day, making a large impact on the scene.
The book drove home to me just how damn hard life was in the early years of the republic. For that alone I enjoyed it immensely. It was the window it provides on history that most attracted me to numismatics in the first place, and that connection can become lost as hobbyists distill those details away in their quest for just the most relevant numismatic facts.
Tarnoff correctly notes how some tales relating to these notorious counterfeiters spread both by newspaper accounts and word of mouth, passing "from one person to the next, the details varying slightly with each storyteller, until someone years later committed to print whatever version had survived. "
Here's one story which helps show how Lewis came to be popularly known as a dashing "Robin Hood" character.
One day, Lewis came to the home of a destitute widow. She didn't have a single dollar to pay her rent, the woman confessed, so the constable would soon seize her cow, her last means of support. "I don't know what to do without her," she fretted. Lewis asked how much she owed, promptly handed over the exact amount and then hid nearby. When the official arrived, the widow offered up the money and, satisfied, he continued on his way until Lewis appeared in his path and put a gun in his face. The robber retrieved the bills he had lent the widow along with the rest of the cash the constable had on him, making a nice profit.
The book is filled with numerous such anecdotes, including a marvelous double-cross story of how the Confederate government tricked the U.S. government into shutting down a maker of counterfeit Confederate notes (one of Upham's competitors).
Tarnoff's book owes its existence to another recent book on the topic, Stephen Mihm's A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States. In his Acknowledgements turnoff notes that "After reading it, I called Stephen, who graciously took the time to speak with me. Our conversation made me want to read everything I could find on the topic, and set in motion the research that eventually produced a book proposal."
He goes on to note, When I first began researching this book, I wasn't sure what to expect. I cast a wide net, writing to archives, historical societies, and librarians around the country, and eventually visiting many of them in person." This wide net is quite evident in the 80+ page Notes section, which passed my "back of the book" test with flying colors. The 256 notes provide detailed backup of the facts presented in the narrative, and make for fine reading on their own. I would encourage everyone to take the time to read this section, for it provides an excellent guide to information to be found in both numismatic and non-numismatic sources.
As just one example, "In 2001, a portfolio of Upham's facsimilies was discovered at an auction in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The portfolio was prepared by Upham for his friend George William Childs, a journalist and publisher of the Philadelphia Public Ledger". This discovery was recounted by George Tremmel in a 2006 Paper Money article and again in his book, A Guide Book of Counterfeit Confederate Currency.
As a bibliophile and collector of numismatic ephemera I great appreciated the image of a "Half Price! Half Price!" advertising circular offering "Confederate Notes and Shinplasters". The May 30, 1862 broadside by Samuel Upham is from the collection of The Library Company in Philadelphia.
There are far too few illustrations in my opinion - I think the book could have been enhanced with the addition of more images of counterfeit and genuine notes, documents, and other artifacts. But those are available elsewhere (at least to numismatists like myself with a decent library). The true value of the book however, lies in the narrative and the copious research behind it. Thanks are due to Ben Tarnoff for writing this book, and here's hoping it's not his last on a numismatic topic.
Earlier this week I lamented to an E-Sylum contributor that there are far too many 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of numismatic books coming out lately, and far too few completely new books. More writers should do original research, and thanks to this outsider, we do have an important new book for numismatists.
To read an earlier review by Arthur Shippee, see:
BOOK REVIEW: MONEYMAKERS: ADVENTURES OF THREE NOTORIOUS COUNTERFEITERS
Wayne Homren, Editor
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