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  • Legal and Illegal Moneymaking:Colonial American Counterfeiters and the Novelization of Eighteenth-Century Crime Literature
  • Todd Barosky (bio)

On December 19, 1732, Benjamin Franklin published this tidbit of local news in the Pennsylvania Gazette:

Last Monday se'ennight in the Evening, three Men went into the Indian Place Tavern, and having call'd for some Liquor, one of them offer'd a new Twenty Shilling Bill to be chang'd for the reckoning; Mr. R. Brockden, Master of the House, suspecting it to be a Counterfeit, went with it immediately to A. Hamilton, Esq.; (under the Pretense of going out to get Change) who caused them presently to be apprehended.

(Franklin, Writings 203-04)

The man who tried to pass the bill in question claimed to have received it a few days before while exchanging some hogs at the market. But when a search of his bags revealed twenty more counterfeit bills just like it, the man—whom Franklin dubs "the Pork-Seller"— realized "that the Story of the Hogs would not answer," and so confessed the truth. As it turned out, he had been given the bills by a fellow named Watt, who had in his turn received them from a fellow named Grindal, recently arrived from Ireland bearing some six hundred counterfeit bills, which the three men had planned to distribute among unsuspecting shopkeepers and merchants throughout Pennsylvania and the Jersies. When Watt was apprehended and imprisoned the following day, later to be whipped, pilloried, and cropped for his crime, Franklin congratulated "the Pork-Seller" for bringing "his Hogs to a fine Market. Tis hoped," Franklin continued, "that by Christmas we shall see Grindal here also, that he may (according to Agreement) share the Profits with 'em" (204-05). Less than one month later, however, Franklin reported in the Gazette on January 11, 1733, that Grindal had been [End Page 531] captured in the Jersies only to make his escape. "In his Pocket-Book was found the Account of Charge, so much to the Printer, so much for engraving the Plates, so much for Paper, &c."—leaving no doubt that the mastermind of this moneymaking operation was still at large (205).

Reports such as these, published during Franklin's early career at the Pennsylvania Gazette, provided an admirable public service by apprising his readers of the various articles of counterfeit money in circulation.1 Today, they serve to remind us that Franklin and his contemporaries lived at a time when the most ordinary monetary exchanges, like buying a drink at the local Indian Head Tavern, were fraught with deception and the risk of dispossession. Yet Franklin's report, tinctured by ridicule, also served a more immediate political purpose: to maintain a clear distinction between illegal moneymakers like Grindal and legal moneymakers like himself. After all, a search of Franklin's pocket book might have turned up an "Account of Charge" very similar to the one found in Grindal's possession. Franklin had been involved with moneymaking since 1728, when he was employed by the printer Samuel Keimer. After successfully supporting Governor Patrick Gordon and the Pennsylvania Assembly the following year in their controversial plan to issue £30,000 of paper money with his pamphlet A Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729), Franklin was rewarded with the "very profitable Job" of printing the requisitioned money (Autobiography 44).2 Soon he would become the public printer for New Jersey and Maryland as well. By 1764, he had printed approximately 2.5 million bills for the middle colonies. Being an official moneymaker made Franklin one of the wealthiest men in colonial America.3

Franklin, presumably like Grindal, took up the business of moneymaking to make some money for himself; and he frequently argued, again like Grindal, that his moneymaking promoted the public welfare by making money more plentiful among common people.4 The difference between the two moneymakers, of course, was that while Franklin was empowered by the authority of the Pennsylvania Assembly, whose promises stood behind the paper bills he printed, Grindal was a counterfeiter forging bills that were backed by nothing at all. Yet this difference, too, seemed doubtful when submitted to careful...


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