Although most people think the United States Secret Service was formed to provide presidential protection, its original charter was the suppression of counterfeit money. (Presidential protection was added after the assassination of Pres. McKinley in 1901.) At Civil War’s end, America had no less than 1,600 banks and other financial institutions, and all were permitted to issue their own currency. With that many different bills in circulation, counterfeiting was relatively easy. It was estimated that immediately following the Civil War, one-third to one-half of the currency then in circulation was fake.
Skilled engravers were tempted to work for counterfeiting rings, which would then put the phony bills into general circulation using con men, and not infrequently women, who could better give the appearance of honesty and respectability.
Paper money was (and is) printed by using engraved plates. Beautifully executed designs depicting historical scenes or allegorical figures were meant to safeguard against counterfeiting. However, engravers of counterfeit plates were often highly accomplished craftsmen, and that, coupled with the hundreds of different notes in circulation, made the detection of counterfeit money practically impossible.
By 1877, private printing of currency had been made illegal, and, notes could be issued only by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. This made counterfeiting much more difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.
By 1879, the Treasury Department was aware another craftsman was at work. However, having no clue to his identity, the Secret Service gave him the nom de counterfeit, “Jim the Penman,” and that is what he was called until 1896 when they finally discovered his true identity.
Ninger would buy the highest-quality bond paper he could find, cut it to the same size as the notes he was copying, then soak the paper in a dilute coffee solution. He would align the paper over a genuine banknote, place the two on a piece of glass, and trace the resulting image. He used a camel’s hair brush to paint colors on the note, imitated the silk threads with red and blue inks, and suggested rather than duplicated the intricate geometric lacework.
Beginning with $10 bills, he moved on to $20s and $50s, and later, $100s. He worked for weeks at a time on each note, and could afford to take his time, since each $100 note was worth around $2000 in today’s dollars.
They were so good, no one ever questioned their authenticity. Ninger even received grudging praise from the Secret Service, declaring him to be the finest counterfeiter ever born.
In March 1896, “Jim” made his single mistake. He paid a bartender with one of his $50 banknotes. Unfortunately, the bartender had just wiped down the bar, and the surface was still wet. When Ninger put the bill on the still-wet bar, the inks began to run. He was arrested and sentenced to six years in the Erie County Penitentiary, serving a little more than four.
One of “Jim’s” more interesting quirks was omitting the line “Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing” on the back of his notes. When asked why, he laughed, then replied in his German accent, “because dey didn’t make dem.”
Nobody knows just how many notes Ninger made. He admitted to 390 during his career; other estimates put the number as high as 700. Only the extremely wealthy could afford the bills that Ninger was forging, and they were so good they became collectors’ items. Because owning counterfeit money is against the law, there are officially no Ninger notes in the hands of private collectors. However, among the paper-money collecting fraternity, it is suspected that 20-30 examples still exist; if so, each would command a price of several thousand dollars. Again, nobody knows for sure, for if one were to announce that he had a genuine Ninger note, the Secret Service would immediately confiscate it. His bills may be counterfeit, but today they are genuine works of art.
Ninger died in Reading, PA, on July 25, 1924, at the age of 77.
Two examples of Ninger’s notes. Not the best photos, but note the white highlights. The Secret Service has stamped both of these “counterfeit.”