The New York Times’ “Disunion” feature keeps presenting essays on topics I considered for my podcast! Luckily (unluckily?) I couldn’t find a gap for the story of this master counterfeiter, whose story is notable. (Ahem, little money-printing joke, there…)
Upham didn’t look like a counterfeiter. He didn’t hide out in the woods or perform daring jailbreaks. He didn’t run from the police. He was a respectable small-business owner and devoted Northern patriot. He ran a store that sold stationery, newspapers and cosmetics. But he was also an entrepreneur with an eye for easy profit, and the Civil War offered the business opportunity of a lifetime: the ability to forge money without breaking the law. Confederate currency, issued by a government that was emphatically not recognized by the Union, had no legal status in the North, which meant Upham could sell his “fac-similes” with impunity.
Over the next 18 months he built the most notorious counterfeiting enterprise of the Civil War — one that also happened to be perfectly legal. His forgeries flooded the South, undermining the value of the Confederate dollar and provoking enraged responses from Southern leaders. He waged war on the enemy’s currency, serving his pocketbook and his country at the same time.