The Money Maker

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In New York on the Saturday evening of March 28, 1896, Ninger concluded his monthly liquor purchases—those shop owners were more used to changing large bills—and found one last $50 bill in his wallet. He stepped into a Cortlandt Street saloon not far from the ferry slip, ordered a glass of wine and a cigar, and chatted with the owner. He had another glass, paid in coin, and started for the door. Then he came back and asked the saloonkeeper, rather apologetically, if he could change a fifty: he had to pay off some farmhands on Monday. He got $40 in bills and $10 in silver.

Ninger was late for his train; scarcely glancing at his change, he put the bills and silver into his pocketbook, gathered up his bag, and hurried out of the bar. The saloonkeeper wondered about a farmer not counting the change from a large bill. He looked at it more closely. It seemed fine. He turned it over and touched part of the bill that had become wet lying on the bar. The ink came off on his fingers. He shouted for his assistant to run and get the man with the beard and bring him back. He was a counterfeiter!

The assistant did not see Ninger on the street, but following a hunch, he ran to the ferry landing. On the way he picked up a policeman. At the ferry-house they spotted their quarry belatedly counting his change.

UNDER STEADY PROBING , Ninger confessed. Later, when the Secret Service men asked him why he omitted the Bureau of Engraving and Printing credit line from the bills, he answered with simple logic, “They didn’t make them.” The New York Herald promptly called him “John the Penman”; the New York Sun felt “Jim the Penman” was cozier, and ran many letters from readers who felt that, given his talent, Ninger should not be punished but instead put to honest work. Silas S. Packard, a pioneer in business education and an authority on freehand penmanship, said it was impossible for anybody to make a counterfeit note with pen and ink alone. He offered $100 for a counterfeit that “would deceive a newsboy.”

The Sun ’s editor was approached by a collector who had been picking up Ninger’s work and volunteered to lend Packard a $20 Ninger bill.

Packard studied the note carefully and wrote to the Sun’s editor: “The $20 greenback you sent me… I would have taken without a second thought in ordinary exchange and yet it was, in many respects, the veriest make-believe.… Farmer Ninger… is a first-class impressionist, in that, while he doesn’t descend to shoe ties he does fool the observer into the belief that he sees shoe ties.… I call this little short of genius.… I don’t know of any holder of his ‘circulation’ who would part with it for double its face value.… I don’t seem to be able to get a Ninger greenback for my $100. I will gladly contribute it to a fund to defend the artist.”

Ninger pleaded guilty. At his trial his attorney asked for clemency because Ninger had made himself nearly blind as a result of his years of intense, close work and because his bills were prized beyond their face value by collectors who would not think of using them as mere legal currency. Ninger could have gotten fifteen years. But the judge gave him six—and a $1 fine. He served fifty months in the Erie County penitentiary.

 
 

After his release he bought a farm in Oley, Pennsylvania. In time the old itch returned, but this time he made a few British pound notes—the old, large-size, black-and-white variety—and passed them easily in Philadelphia. It took him half a day to make each, much less time than he had spent on the greenbacks. But his wife’s mounting anxiety made him stop. He farmed enough to make a bare living and died on July 25, 1924, at the age of seventy-seven.

IN 1979 I WAS THE banquet speaker at the annual meeting of the Society of Paper Money collectors. Among other things, I said I would love to meet a collector who had some Ninger notes. Of the several hundred collectors present, none sought me out. But later that evening my hotel phone rang and someone said: “You want to get us in trouble? You got a Ninger bill and you brag about it, the Secret Service grabs it and you’re out a few thousand bucks.”

Since 1909 U.S. residents have been required to turn over all counterfeit American money to the Treasury, but my caller guessed there might be twenty or thirty Ninger notes still in the hands of collectors like himself. Not many, considering that Ninger probably made up to seven hundred notes in his time. My caller’s pride was a $50 Ninger for which he had paid $225, “long ago.”

He laughed: “You’re gonna tell me it’s like an art collector who gets a stolen picture and doesn’t dare show it around. You’ve even got to be careful with friendly collectors because after a bad night one of them might get jealous and turn you in.

He said that he had been offered $1,500 for his Ninger but had turned it down, sure that in a few years it would be worth even more.