The Money Maker

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THE MOST PRESUMPTUOUS counterfeiter in American history was a blue-eyed, sandy-bearded, German sign painter named Emanuel Ninger. As a sign painter he was adequate; as an impressionist, a historic master. And a soaring egotist. Not for him the ordinary counterfeiter’s conceit that his bills were as good as the government’s. Ninger insisted his were worth more. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing merely turned out mass-impressed inked rectangles, but from 1883 to 1896 Ninger produced carefully rendered individual works of art.

Ninger was thirty-five years old when he came to America in 1882 with his wife, Adele, and $2,000. In the spring of 1883 they bought a farm near Westfield, New Jersey, for about $800. There, when the rest of the money ran out, he began making his own.

First he got the best paper he could find. He was not, of course, able to lay hands on the silk-fibered paper made especially for the U.S. government, but he went to the same manufacturer, Crane & Company, and bought their finest bond. He then cut the paper to fit the size of the notes he was counterfeiting and soaked the blank rectangles in weak coffee. After soaking for an hour the paper would take on the aged appearance of having passed through several hands: soft and mellow but not worn or ragged. Now, while the bond paper was still wet, he put it on top of a genuine note, usually a $20, $50, or $100 bill, his favorite denominations. With the blank sheet and the genuine note aligned exactly, he placed the two on a sheet of glass. Through the nearly transparent paper he could see every figure, letter, portrait, and vignette. With a hard lead pencil, he traced the details of the bill. Then he went over the tracings with pen and ink. By now the bond paper was quite dry.

So far he had accomplished nothing that anyone with a good eye and steady hand could not do competently. The real work began when he used a camel’s hair brush to put colors on the note. The silk threads of the genuine note were imitated with red and blue inks, but he did not even try to duplicate the fine tracery of the geometric lathework. He merely suggested the lathework—but so artfully that even after careful study it was hard to tell that it was Ninger’s brushstrokes rather than the Bureau of Engraving’s machine that had produced the fine, intricately woven lines. A Secret Service officer surveying Ninger’s studio commented that it was “the simplest outfit, and yet it produced the most dangerous counterfeits that I ever saw.”

He probably turned out some $300 worth a month; if we assume he cleared $225 after expenses, he was making more than most Americans during the thirteen years he ran his simple atelier.

All his bills had the same curious omission: none of them carried the credit line for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Sometimes he also eliminated the warning that used to appear on the backs of U. S. currency: “ COUNTERFEITING or altering this Note or passing any Counterfeit or Alteration of it, or having in possession any false or Counterfeit plate or impression of it, or any paper made in imitation of the paper on which it is printed is Felony and is punishable by $5,000 fine or 15 years imprisonment at hard labor or both.” Surely no man is required to copy fifty-seven words that might easily unnerve his fine, steady hand. The omission was almost never noticed. When did you last study the back of a bank note?

On the last Friday of every month, Ninger would set out for New York, where he, an unknown artist, could convert his paintings into ready cash.

In fact, Ninger’s work even got some reviews. The New York Times in an 1891 account said that “nine persons out of ten would take it for the genuine article… the one who made it must have been an expert of rare ability. ” A year later the Times offered higher praise: “a marvelously fine piece of work… the coloring is excellent, the design clearly reproduced.… The paper is good and has almost the right feel. ‘Engraved and printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’ is… missing, possibly because the artist didn’t care to burden his soul with unnecessary lies.”

In 1892 the prosperous Ningers bought a farm in Flagtown, New Jersey, for $1,500. The property consisted of a good-sized two-story frame house, a large lawn, a barn, and three acres. Neighbors quickly sized them up as quiet folk who kept to themselves. It was obvious that Ninger did not depend on his small farm for a livelihood. He contributed generously to local charities, and often Mrs. Ninger had help with housecleaning chores. Neighbors also saw that at least once a month Ninger took the Jersey Central to New York. Mrs. Ninger let it be known that her husband was a modest but successful stock market investor.