Feature Great Historical Counterfeits

Find out more about the history of counterfeiting currency.

Great Historical Counterfeits

The practice of counterfeiting currency is as old as money itself. 

Over the ages many have tried to make a living from this illegal activity with varying degrees of success.

One of the earliest counterfeiters was also one of the luckiest.  Dating back to the 5th century under the rule of Emperor Justinian, the man who would become known as Alexander the Barber was so talented that he was eventually employed by the state to help in their finance department.

Over the ages methods of counterfeiting became increasingly sophisticated. 

Before the introduction of paper money, counterfeiters such as the English couple Thomas and Anne Rogers shaved the edges off silver coins to decrease their weight.  The pair met a sticky end.  After being found guilty of treason, Thomas and Anne were hanged, drawn and quartered, and burned alive respectively.   

The turn of the century saw notes become legal tender in America.  Mary Butterworth was one of the first counterfeiters to exploit this, using starched cloth and a hot iron to transfer the pattern of a note onto paper, and then painstakingly inking in the design with a quill.

Being something of an entrepreneur she involved her whole family in the business selling the bills at as much as half their face value.  In 1723 the authorities brought her to trial, and despite testimony against her from her brother, she was acquitted due to lack of evidence and retired on her ill gotten gains.

The same cannot be said however for fellow counterfeiter Catherine Murphy, who just 66 years later became the last woman to be executed by burning in the UK.

Others chose to make more of a public statement with their activities.  Journalist turned counterfeiter Samuel Upham initially produced fake Confederate notes as novelty items in an attempt to support the Unionists in the Civil War. 

The notes which sold for a penny each contained a line across the bottom which read “Fac-simile Confederate Note – Sold wholesale and retail by S.C. Upham 403 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.”  It was only when cotton traders started trimming off the line and spending the money that the South was flooded with counterfeits. 

Seeing this success Upham grew in confidence, exchanging letter stock for high quality banknote paper to produce his forgeries.  Growing increasingly worried, the Confederate Congress brought in the death penalty as the punishment for counterfeiting. 

By the time the operation ended, Upham had a $10,000 price on his head and claimed to have printed $15,000,000 worth of fake notes.

Counterfeiting is not only the remit of individuals.  In the 1920s Hungary was engaged in a plot to purchase 10 million fake Francs as a move to avenge their territorial losses in WWI.  Germany and Austria took similar actions during WWII, forcing artists in concentration camps to produce the forgeries. 

Today it is thought that the most impressive counterfeit currency is the U.S. dollar produced in North Korea.  These copies are of such high quality they are even referred to as ‘Superdollars’.