Most people, when they’re broke, tighten their belts, find another job, or ask their boss for a raise. Some creative folks try making their own money (literally). With today’s high definition photocopiers exact copies of legitimate bills can be made in a jiffy, which keeps the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (fondly called “the BEP” for short) constantly redesigning our paper money.
Back in Great Depression days all sorts of money-making schemes flourished: bootlegging, bank robbing, counterfeiting. Fabricating paper money seemed like a profitable endeavor for my antagonist, Spats Sullivan, in my novel Chasing the Strawberry Moon. Researching the state of art of printing bogus money in 1939 proved most interesting.
The 1920 and 1930s produced a rich mix of slang terms for money:
- Culinary terms were common: dough, bread, coconut, fish, bacon (as in bring home…) with sourdough being especially useful when talking about bogus bills
- Vegetable terms: cabbage, lettuce, kale, beans (as in bean counter)
- Colors of the rainbow: greenbacks, long green, folding green, yellowbacks
- And of course the mystifying terms: frogskin, lizard, simoleon, moolah, rhino, spondulicks????
(An aside: The Canadian one dollar coin, commonly called the loonie, bears images of a common loon, a bird which is well known in Canada, on the front surface and Queen Elizabeth II on the back. Sadly for our friends north of the border, loonie has other connotations which can lead to misunderstandings in discussions at the cash register.)
In the dirty 30’s the entire process was slow, tedious work to engrave plates that simulated paper money. This took a skilled artisan with meticulous attention to detail and good eyesight to produce bogus bills. Then the mobsters had to get the bills into circulation. The FBI was busy chasing gangsters and the Treasury Department was producing films they hoped would prove useful for local officials to educate themselves on the finer points of identifying fake bills. “Doubtful Dollars” was a classic Treasury Department counterfeit money film that I purchased to educate myself about the printing and distribution process.
During the 1930’s gangsters thrived in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul thanks to a “crime containment” system developed by Chief of Police John J. “the Big Fellow” O’Connor. From his office in St. Paul he oversaw a unique system for dealing with the underworld. If you were a gangster looking to hide out, when the heat was on, you rode the bus or train into town and a uniformed officer greeted you at the station. That outstretched palm expected a cash down payment that ensured you could live a life free of harassment as long as you did not commit any crimes within city boundaries. That left a whole lot of territory outside the city limits where you could venture a sortie or two when money got low. The first thing you had to do was steal an automobile so you had some wheels to get beyond the city limits.
The scheme ended in 1934 when wiretaps caught and recorded conversations between assorted mobsters and police officers at all levels. J Edgar Hoover trapped numerous hoodlums in the act. One notorious member of the Barker/Karpis gang railed following his capture that he was “…no hood, and I don’t like to be called a hood. I’m a thief….A thief is anybody who gets out and works for his living – like robbing a bank…or kidnapping somebody. He really gives some effort to it. A hoodlum is a pretty lousy sort of scum. He works for gangsters and bumps guys off.”
So there you have it. Do you think counterfeiting is maybe one way that crime does pay?