Passing the Buck

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and  also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It’s fixed format so it’s better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website .

Passing the Buck

On December 28, 1898, a Monroe head $100 silver certificate sent to the Philadelphia subtreasury (1) aroused the suspicion of a clerk when the red Treasury seal smeared under his damp thumb. The clerk took the bill to Washington where Treasury experts initially passed it as genuine but finally declared it counterfeit when it separated into two pieces when soaked in water (2). Even though Monroe’s cheekbones and hair over the ear weren’t right, the counterfeit was so good that the Treasury had to recall the entire issue, $27 million and the new head of the Secret Service, John Wilkie, was directed by the Secretary of the Treasury to spend all his time on the investigation.Image

Wilkie assigned the case to his best detective, William Burns. By asking around the trade, Burns determined which engravers had the necessary skills and had ordered certain materials. This led him to Arthur Taylor and Baldwin Bredell, engravers in Philadelphia.

The Secret Service watched the top floor of a building at Ninth and Filbert streets for over a year. One day Taylor and Bredell took a train to Lancaster, shadowed by a Secret Service operative. They visited a large cigar factory there owned by William Jacobs and a tobacco warehouse a block away run by W.L. Kendig.

When informed of this, Wilkie investigated and found that cigars made there had counterfeit revenue stamps on the boxes. But it was decided to continue the investigation until there was enough evidence to also tie Taylor and Bredell to the counterfeit hundred.

Jacobs and Kendig went to lunch together at noon, leaving the warehouse unoccupied. One day detective Burns broke a window in the warehouse with a baseball and boosted a small boy he had brought along from Philadelphia through the broken window. The boy went around to the front and opened a spring door from the inside. Burns went in and and found 27 tons of blue paper used to make the counterfeit stamps, enough for 400 million cigars (3). When Jacobs and Kendig returned they found a weeping boy who said he would pay for the glass if they would let him in to recover his ball, They did and forgave the broken window.

A night reconnaissance up a fire escape by Burns found all the windows at the Philadelphia engraving shop locked. Taylor and Bredell employed an office boy. Burns rented a costume and an agent bumped into the boy on the street and gave him fifty cents to take the package to a hotel and give it to Burns, posing as a theater man, who asked the boy if he’d like to be an extra in a play. The boy was taken to another room where he changed into the costume, then to see an agent posing as the theater manager. Burns took the boy’s keys from his pocket, and “whirled away” in a waiting carriage to the Yale Lock Company nearby, had the office key duplicated, then “whirled back”. (4)

The next night Burns went into the engraver’s offices for a look. Burns visited the offices at noon when Taylor and Bredell were away for lunch and also nights. He was able to make a key for a locker and in it found a plate for a counterfeit Lincoln-head hundred almost completed.

Finally, on April 18, 1899, Taylor and Bredell were arrested. Even though they were caught red-handed, they declined to make a statement. Opening a drawer, Burns found the Lincoln-head plate and also a genuine bill used to make the plate. Unbeknownst to the counterfeiters, the Secret Service had intercepted a letter from Jacobs to Taylor which they were able to open undetected in spite of elaborate safeguards. In the letter were two Lincoln hundreds. When Burns asked where the second hundred Jacobs had sent them was, and also told them he had arrested two lawyers named Ingham and Newitt who had been hired by Jacobs and Kendig to pay $500 a month to a Secret Service agent for information, who played along, they decided to confess.

Bredell went to a clever hiding place and extracted the other hundred along with a counterfeit fifty. Bredell told Burns that the plates for the fifty were hidden in the foundation of his house across the Delaware in Camden, New Jersey. Along with the plates, the Secret Service also found a machine used to number the counterfeit Monroes.

Taylor then told how they became counterfeiters. In 1896, an intermediary for Jacobs offered Taylor $25,000 (5) (almost $700,000 in 2014) to engrave the plate for the counterfeit cigar stamps. When he accepted, he was introduced to Jacobs and Kendig who set him up along with Bredell in the Philadelphia shop. Jacobs and Kendig suggested counterfeiting money to Taylor in 1897. Taylor and Kendig toured the Bureau of Engraving and Printing many times, noting how the process was done.

That night Burns and Wilkie along with a secret service party took the train to Lancaster and entered the tobacco warehouse with keys found at Taylor and Bredell’s shop and spent the night. Early the next morning Kendig was arrested when he came to the warehouse. He recognized Burns, even though he had never seen him. A crooked revenue agent had warned him that the the feds were nosing around and had provided a description of Burns.

But Jacobs had been up with a sick child and went to the cigar factory without first going to the warehouse as was his custom. Burns went to the cigar factory and posed as a buyer in order to be led to Jacobs without alerting him so that he could perhaps escape. Jacobs also recognized Burns from the description provided. Jacobs attempted to bribe Burns — he pointed to a $14,000 deposit he was making out on his desk and offered to double it in ten minutes.

Burns found the die rolls for printing the counterfeit revenue stamps in a drawer, but Jacobs insisted on a deal for the Monroe plates, which Burns refused. Burns then went back to the warehouse where Kendig was handcuffed to an agent and threatened to arrest his father. Kendig then led Burns to a hiding place behind some bricks in a wall and turned over the plates to the counterfeit hundred.

Taylor and Bredell were taken to Moyamensing prison in Philadelphia to await trial. A few months after that, a counterfeit twenty was found in circulation. Burns knew that Taylor and Bredell had made it — in prison! Burns visited them in prison and showed them the fake twenty and asked who could have made it. When they professed ignorance, Burns angrily told them how they had made it and circulated it. This elicited an account of how a lawyer, John Semple, had seen a newspaper article about the counterfeiters that also told how William Brockway, the “King of the Counterfeiters”, had been given immunity several times for turning over counterfeit plates, although he was finally put in prison and was then serving a ten year sentence.

Semple told Taylor and Bredell about Brockway and they agreed to let him represent them. Semple visited Brockway in prison and he said that Taylor and Bredell would have been let go in return for the plates if they hadn’t already been surrendered. Semple then suggested to Taylor and Bredell that they get out on bond and make another counterfeit note with the idea of negotiating leniency in exchange for the new plates. But the bond was too high so they figured out a way to print the counterfeits in prison.

But then they told Burns that they had printed the twenties before they were arrested and had thrown the plates in the Delaware river, which Burns pointed out contradicted their scheme to turn them over for leniency. After Burns threatened to put Taylor’s mother and brother in prison as accomplices, the counterfeiters confessed that they still had the plates which were secreted in the grave of Taylor’s father. Burns and Wilkie went to the cemetery and dug them up.

Relatives brought steel plates and other supplies to Taylor and Bredell. They were able to sensitize a steel plate and capture an image of a twenty without a camera by laying it on the plate under a piece of glass and exposing it to light, an old wet plate process. They then engraved the plate by tracing the image, taking turns at night under a black cloth with an oil lamp for light. They were able to completely bleach out one dollar bills so they didn’t have to split them and they printed the fakes on them with an improvised press that worked like a clothes wringer. Semple smuggled in $150 in ones, paid for by Bredell’s wife.

Taylor’s brother Harry passed the twenties. He was caught and arrested. Semple was also arrested as were Ellery Ingham a former United States Attorney and and Harvey Newitt, his former assistant and law partner, the lawyers who had thought they were bribing a Secret Service agent to provide information about the what the Service knew. Taylor and Bredell were sentenced to seven years less the three years already served and were sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Kendig and Jacobs were sentenced to twelve years, but were pardoned by President Roosevelt in 1905 after having served five years. Semple was tried once with a hung jury and acquitted in a second trial. In great pain from rheumatism, he shot himself in the heart in 1915. Ingham and Newitt were sentenced to 2½ years.

William Burns went on to found the William J. Burns International Detective Agency and was appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation, the predecessor to the FBI, in 1921. Burns was fired in 1924 when his mentor, Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, was caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal and was cashiered. He retired to Sarasota, Florida and died in 1932. Burns was succeeded by his young deputy, J. Edgar Hoover. The William J. Burns International Detective Agency was acquired by Securitas Security Services in 2000, which had bought Pinkerton the year before.

King of the Counterfeiters William Brockway (real name William Spencer) was released early in January, 1904 after he took the poor convict oath attesting that he could not pay his $1000 fine. He was arrested in 1905 in Brooklyn after detectives saw him buying fine quality paper at stationers, which he vigorously protested according to an article in the New York Times August 29, 1905, which also said “He is believed to have considerable money.” Brockway died at a niece’s house in Connecticut in 1920 after a gas valve was accidentally left open. He was 98.

1. Government funds were held in the Treasury and subtreasuries independently of the banking system since there was no central bank at that time.

2. Burns’ account says the Monroes were made from one dollar bills mostly bleached of ink, split, and glued together split sides out, so the bills were printed on blank genuine government paper. But the January 1901 edition of Dickerman’s United States Treasury Counterfeit Detector says the fakes “are printed on two pieces of paper, between which red and blue silk thread in imitation of distributed fibre is placed.”

3. This is from an article in the Reading Eagle (Pa.) April 21, 1899. The Eagle also says that 2 million cigars were seized. That would be enough to cheat the government out of $6000 ($167,000 in 2014) at the $3 per thousand tax rate. Production was 1-1.5 million cigars a week with 500-600 employees according the article.

4. The primary source for this article is Great Cases of Detective Burns, by Dana Gatlin which appeared in McClure’s, March, 1911. Wilkie also wrote an account of the affair titled Ten Million or Ten Years in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, September, 1900. In his account, the boy’s keys were taken to the basement of the hotel where a duplicate was filed by a waiting locksmith in four minutes. Since Burns was the one who actually did it, I have used his version.

5. $3000 according to the Reading Eagle, which sounds more likely.

Copyright © 2020 Joseph MIrsky

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