“Counterfeiting in Colonial America”



Kenneth Scott
Foreword by David R. Johnson
320 pages, 10 illustrations, $19.95 paper

Counterfeiting flourished in the colonies. As David R. Johnson explains in his new foreword to Kenneth Scott’s classic book, “The combination of a generally inefficient law enforcement system, the gradual proliferation of colonial issues to copy, and the reliance on private citizens to prosecute criminals made it difficult to capture, prosecute, or punish counterfeiters.

“Indeed, counterfeiting in American entered a kind of golden age beginning in the early 18th century, an age that would last for roughly 150 years.” Merchants could be paid in Spanish doubloons, British pounds, or any of the various currencies each colony produced. Such a diversity of kinds of money encouraged some citizens to try their hands at counterfeiting.

Scott describes a story of how a young girl was fetching a pint of hard cider for her father; the merchant remarked at how warm the coin was. “Well,” the girl replied, “that is because my father just made it.” With the rise of paper currency, women became some of the most notorious counterfeiters, making transfers of money using a hot clothes iron.

With the proliferation of both metal and paper forgeries, the colonies were forced to react with strong measures in order to protect the value of their money; the difficulties in identifying and prosecuting criminals were compounded in the late 18th century when Britain encouraged counterfeiting American money to undermine the fledgling nation’s economy.

The penalties for counterfeiting were justifiably harsh. Each colonial government saw it as a serious crime and meted out a variety of punishments, from cropping of ears to death by hanging.

As much a social history of colonial America as it is a richly peopled narrative of one of the world’s oldest crimes, “Counterfeiting in America” is sure to appeal to scholars, numismatists, and general readers alike.


Originally published on March 2, 2000