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Counterfeit this bill and…die?

The United States got a new hundred-dollar bill last year, a familiar Benjamin staring back at you surrounded by a host of new security features. There’s a blue security ribbon of liberty bells and 100s woven into the paper. The bells and hundreds move side to side and up and down with the bill. There is an inkwell with a liberty bell that appears and disappears with moving the bill side to side. This, in addition to six other security features, makes the bill particularly difficult to counterfeit. Governments and banks make and issue money that they are sure cannot be copied. People try. Some succeed.

new 100

Counterfeiting (successfully) always seemed like a glamorous crime for intellectuals until I learned that the first person to try it was desperate like an underage drinker changing the birth year on their license with a pen. Richard William Vaughan was just that guy when, in 1758 England, he tried to change the figures on his bank-note to a higher denomination. They caught and executed him.

Understandably, it took a while for people to attempt this path to riches again and the next potential counterfeiters were much more skillful. In 19th century Britain laws promising prison sentences and the penalty of death for counterfeit and forgery were plenty, but the would-be-rich couldn’t resist. Skilled crafts workers got away with their imitation bills for a time because banks believed their notes impossible for others to manufacture. Less skilled attempts were plentiful. Between 1797 and 1817, there were 870 prosecutions related to bank-note forgery in Britain, and 32 note-forgeries resulting in hanging executions in 1818.

Counterfeiting became increasingly difficult as technologies became more advanced. It was no longer enough to have the skills of engraving, hand papermaking and watermark creation. Papermaking was industrialized and to counterfeit you needed a paper machine, or access to one. This put counterfeiting on the decline, at least in the United States, until a counterfeited Monroe head hundred-dollar silver certificate emerged in 1897. The suspenseful tale of The Lancaster Case, told by Dana Catlin in the March 1911 edition of McClure’s Magazine, accounts the case of two counterfeiters who tricked reputable paper mills to do their dirty work for them. Read all about it here: The Great Cases of Detective Burns

Illustration by Jay Hambidge

Illustration by Jay Hambidge

And check out for an interactive $100 bill that you can tilt, backlight, and turn over to explore all the new features.

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This entry was posted on May 16, 2014 by in Paper College, Paper Industry and tagged .
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