Counterfeiting is as old as money itself, and is sufficiently prevalent throughout history that it has been called “the world’s second oldest profession.” Coinage of money began in the Greek city of Lydia around 600 B.C. Before the introduction of paper money, the most prevalent method of counterfeiting involved mixing base metals with pure gold or silver. A common practice was to “shave” the edges of a coin. This is known as “clipping.” Precious metals collected in this way could be used to produce counterfeit coinage. A fourrée is an ancient type of counterfeit coin, in which a base metal core has been plated with a precious metal to resemble its solid metal counterpart.
When paper money was introduced in China in the 13th century, wood from mulberry trees was used to make the money. To control access to the paper, guards were stationed around mulberry forests, while counterfeiters were punished by death.
In the 13th century Mastro Adamo was mentioned by Dante Alighieri as a counterfeiter of the Florentine fiorino, punished with death by hanging. The English couple Thomas and Anne Rogers were convicted on 15 October 1690 for “Clipping 40 pieces of Silver.” Thomas Rogers was hanged, drawn and quartered while Anne Rogers was burnt alive. Evidence supplied by an informant led to the arrest of the last of the English Coiners “King” David Hartley, who was executed by hanging in 1770. The extreme forms of punishment were meted out for acts of treason against state or Crown, rather than simple crime.
Counterfeit warning printed on the reverse of a 4shilling Colonial currency in 1776 from Delaware Colony
American 18th-19th century iron counterfeit coin mold for making fake Spanish milled dollars and U.S. half dollars
Counterfeit coin casting mould from the early 20th century presumably made from zinc for producing fake 1 French Indo-Chinese Piastre de Commerce coins
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Irish immigrants to London were particularly associated with the spending (uttering) of counterfeit money, while locals were more likely to participate in the safer and more profitable forms of currency crime, which could take place behind locked doors. These include producing the false money and selling it wholesale.
Similarly, in America, Colonial paper currency printed by Benjamin Franklin and others often bore the phrase “to counterfeit is death.”The theory behind such harsh punishments was that one who had the skills to counterfeit currency was considered a threat to the safety of the State, and had to be eliminated. Another explanation is the fact that issuing money that people could trust was both an economic imperative, as well as a (where applicable) Royal prerogative; therefore counterfeiting was a crime against the state or ruler itself, rather than against the person who received the fake money. Far more fortunate was an earlier practitioner of the same art, active in the time of the Emperor Justinian. Rather than executing Alexander the Barber, the Emperor chose to employ his talents in the government’s own service.
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Nations have used counterfeiting as a means of warfare. The idea is to overflow the enemy’s economy with fake bank notes, so that the real value of the money plummets. Great Britain did this during the American Revolutionary War to reduce the value of the Continental Dollar. The counterfeiters for the British were known as “shovers,” presumably for the ability to “shove” the fake currency into circulation. Two of the most well-known shovers for the British during the Revolutionary War were David Farnsworth and John Blair. They were caught with 10,000 dollars in counterfeits when arrested. George Washington took a personal interest in their case and even called for them to be tortured to discover further information. They were eventually hanged for their crimes.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate States dollar was heavily counterfeited by private interests on the Union side, often without the sanction of the Union government in Washington. The Confederacy’s access to modern printing technology was limited while many Northern-made imitations were printed on high quality banknote paper procured through extralegal means. As a result, counterfeit Southern notes were often equal or even superior in quality compared to genuine Confederate money.
In 1834, counterfeit copper coins manufactured in the United States were seized from several ships with American flags in Brazil. The practice seemed to end after that.