This morning The Hustle newsletter published a great lengthy article by Zachary Crockett on "Mr. 880", the infamous
Depression-era counterfeiter who eluded federal agents for more than a decade. His story was made into a 1950 film, Mister 880. Here are some
excerpts, but be sure to read the complete article online, which has additional images and links to supporting information, including newspaper
accounts. Thanks to Pablo Hoffman for passing this along. -Editor
From the film Mister 880
At the time, replicating the look and feel of US currency was considered an expensive and difficult craft, reserved for criminal cartels with deep
pockets. It was a technical process involving masterful artistry and specialized tools — and it was “nearly impossible” to elude authorities.
But Juettner would not be deterred.
One morning in November of 1938, he snapped pictures of a $1 bill, transferred the images to a pair of zinc plates (using, among other things, a
bath of acid), then meticulously filled in small details of the bill by hand.
On a small hand-driven printing press in the kitchen of his brownstone flat at 204 W. 96th Street, he began minting fake $1 bills.
The day after Juentter began his operation, the Secret Service, which handled counterfeiting cases at the time, received a curious $1 bill that
had been passed off at a cigar shop on Broadway and 102nd Street.
It was like nothing they'd ever seen.
First off, no self-respecting counterfeiter had ever taken the time and trouble to replicate $1 bills (usually, it was higher denominations).
Secondly, counterfeiters usually took great pride in their work: They were masters of their craft and vied to create currency so artistically sound
that it was indistinguishable from the real deal.
But this bill was so poorly done that the Secret Service thought the perpetrator was intentionally mocking them.
It was printed on cheap bond paper that could be found at any stationary store. The serial numbers were “fuzzy” and misaligned, the Secret Service
later said. George Washington's likeness was “clumsily retouched, murky and deathlike,” with black blotches for eyes.
And just for good measure, the ex-president's name was misspelled “Wahsington.”
Within the month, 40 more of the very same $1 bills, used to buy goods at shops all over the city, showed up at the crime lab. By mid-1938, the
tally grew to 585.
The Secret Service dubbed the mystery man “Mister 880,” after his case file number.
For James J. Maloney, the supervising agent of the Secret Service's New York bureau, the hunt was an “unbearably provoking” experience.
Under his tutelage, the Secret Service had seized millions in counterfeit bills, oftentimes before they even went into circulation. The demise of
most of these counterfeiters was greed — but Mister 880 was different.
He seemed to use his bills just enough to survive, never passing off more than $15 per week. He also never spent money in the same place twice:
His “hits” spanned subway stations, dime stores, and tavern owners all over Manhattan.
Investigators set up a map of New York in their office, marking each $1 counterfeit location with a red thumbtack. They handed out some 200,000
warning placards at 10,000 stores. They tracked down dozens of folks who'd spent the bills.
But 10 years came and went, and the search for Mister 880 turned into the largest and most expensive counterfeit investigation in Secret Service
By 1947, the Secret Service had documented some $7,000 of the distinctively terrible fake $1 bills — about 5% of the $137,318 of fake currency
estimated to be in circulation nation-wide.
As it turned out, the worst counterfeiter in history was also the most elusive. And it would take a fire (and a crew of 12-year-old kids) to smoke
Ironically, "Mister 880", a poor widower who turned to counterfeiting to make ends meet, found a sympathetic judge, served a short
sentence and sold the rights to his story to Hollywood for more money than he'd made in 10 years counterfeiting. -Editor
He returned to a life of normalcy, and lived out the rest of his days in the suburbs of Long Island, where he died in 1955, at the age of 79.
To read the complete article, see:
The 70-year-old retiree who became America's worst counterfeiter
To read earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
FINDING 'MR. 880': THE CASE OF THE ONE-DOLLAR COUNTERFEITER
(https://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v14n14a13.html) MORE ON COUNTERFEITER "MR.
800" (https://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v14n15a09.html) On Mr. 880 and Mark
Surrency's Counterfeits Class (https://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v14n16a13.html)
For more in Mister 880 on the Newman Numismatic Portal, see:
Wayne Homren, Editor
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