Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On Counterfeiting

Title page to Heath's Infallible Counterfeit Detector at Sight book.
Laban Heath was a New England engraver who, by the mid 1860s, had discovered a way to stay relevant. As an engraver, he had been involved in the engraving of paper currency which, at the time, was issued only by state banks. This changed with the National Currency Act of 1863, which established a new national currency. Heath did not agree with the supposition that this new money would be "entirely secure from counterfeiting and [that]…no knowledge of detecting [would] be necessary… ."

Prior to the Act, the only way of protection came via bank note reporters, publications in which the various banks described counterfeiting they had identified in their own notes. Heath felt that a new system could also profit from a new way of looking at counterfeit money. In 1864, he published his first guide, Heath’s Infallible Counterfeit Detector At Sight – The Only Infallible Method of Detecting Counterfeit, Spurious, and Altered Bank-Notes, and Applicable to All Banks in the United States and Canada, As Now in Circulation, Or That May Be Issued.

In the introduction, Heath states that his guide would provide the same means of detecting used by "Engravers, Brokers, Cashiers and other experts." He then sets out to describe the various ways in which different sections of a bill can or cannot be "successfully Imitated":
The general principle upon which the detection of counterfeit is based is that all parts of genuine notes are engraved by machinery – with some exceptions hereafter named – while all parts of counterfeit notes are engraved by hand, with exceptions hereafter given.
Heath also includes "full illustrations" based on genuine engravings he was able to procure "with great difficulty, owing to the misuse which might be made of them by counterfeiters." This difficulty, he admits, has unfortunately raised the cost of his guide. There are indeed several plates with a variety of examples in this little booklet, including an example of a counterfeit bill, the plate of which was obtained "at great trouble" from counterfeiters "and taken from them at the time of their arrest."
In addition to the illustrations, Heath gives many examples of how counterfeiters proceeded to alter bank notes. One example is “piecing,” in which a counterfeit note is cut up into pieces that are then pasted onto genuine ones.

An example of a valid bank noteAn example of a counterfeit bank note.

Laban continued to update his guide over the years, with new editions in 1866, 1867 and 1870. He also patented a simple microscope and telescope in 1866 and an Improved Adjustable Compound Microscope in 1877.

Heath’s Counterfeit Detector At Sight can be found in ML-86, The Papers of the Wheeler Family of Orford, NH.

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