August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
The Secret Service considered Emanuel Ninger a common counterfeiter. He saw himself as an American master of the impressionist school.
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.
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.
“A hell of a tease, I know. I’m not going to tell you who I am, let alone show you the note, so what did I call you for? I figure the more you write about Ninger notes, it’s got to help the bid price.”