(Roughly) Daily

“The counterfeit and counterpart of Nature is reproduced in art”*…

 

Uncut sheets of partially finished phony bills. Photo courtesy of Frank Bourassa

Years of running drugs and boosting cars left Frank Bourassa thinking: There’s got to be an easier way to earn a dishonest living. That’s when he nerved up the idea to make his fortune. (Literally.) Which is how Frank became the most prolific counterfeiter in American history—a guy with more than $200 million in nearly flawless fake twenties stuffed in a garage. How he got away with it all, well, that’s even crazier…

Read the extraordinary ballad of the banknotes at “The Paper Caper: the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.”

* Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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As we hold our bills up to the light, we might recall that it was on this date in 1876 that a gang of counterfeiters attempted (and failed) to steal Lincoln’s body from his tomb.

When the tomb was completed in 1874, Lincoln’s coffin was placed in a white marble sarcophagus in a burial room behind only a steel gate locked with a padlock, where he remained undisturbed for two years. In November 1876, Irish crime boss James “Big Jim” Kennally, who ran a counterfeiting ring in Chicago, decided on a plan for the release of their engraver, Benjamin Boyd, who’d been arrested and sentenced to ten years at the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet. The plan was to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb, bury it in the Indiana Dunes along Lake Michigan to cover their tracks, and hold it for ransom, in exchange for a full pardon for Boyd and $200,000 ($4,255,319 in 2012 dollars) in cash.

To that end, Kennally recruited two members of his gang, Terrence Mullen and Jack Hughes, to carry out the plot. As they discussed their plans at “the Hub”, a saloon on Madison Street in Chicago, they realized that neither had any experience with bodysnatching, and so they recruited a third man, Lewis Swegles, to assist them; Swegles brought in a man named Billy Brown as the getaway driver. Their plan was to journey to Springfield on the overnight train on November 6, scout out the tomb on the day of November 7, and take the body that evening, while the people’s attention was on the presidential elections. None of them had any experience with lock-picking, so they had to cut through the padlock with a file. They then opened up the sarcophagus, but were unable to move the 500-pound, lead-lined cedar coffin more than a few inches. Mullen and Hughes sent Swegles to retrieve the wagon, but instead Swegles tipped off the waiting law enforcement officials in the vestibule of the tomb; Swegles and Brown were in fact paid informants of the United States Secret Service (at the time intended to stop counterfeiting, not protect the President). Swegles had gone to Patrick D. Tyrrell, the Secret Service chief in Chicago, when he received word of the plot. As the lawmen moved in, one of the Pinkerton detectives present accidentally discharged his pistol, causing Mullen and Hughes to flee back to the Hub in Chicago. They were arrested by Tyrrell and his agents the following evening.

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Lincoln’s Tomb, Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois

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Written by LW

November 7, 2014 at 1:01 am

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