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A group of ex-farmers, a terrorist from Kansas, and a schoolteacher attempt the greatest covert operation of the Civil War.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: There’s something we haven’t discussed yet on Uncivil…. the Confederacy was trying to fight off an enemy...because they wanted independence.
And if they really wanted to prove they could be an independent nation... they didn’t just need their own military.. they needed their own institutions and symbols... Symbols they could use to convince people that they could be their own legitimate country…
So the war wasn’t just being fought on the battlefields. It was being fought in government offices and state houses.
The Confederacy had their own president, their own capital city, their own flag and their own money….
JACK HITT: But these attempts to prove their legitimacy faced threats from all sides...
And in 1862... a new threat emerged from a very unlikely place.... a small shop in Philadelphia that sold stationary and newspapers...
The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was so worried about this store that he placed a 10,000 dollar bounty on the owner's head — dead or alive.
Today on the show... how a small shopkeeper named Samuel C. Upham shook people's faith in the Confederacy...to the core.
And what the Confederacy did to shut him down…
JH: I’m Jack Hitt
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JH: And this is Uncivil
CK: Where ransack America history
JH: And discover once again… that whoever controls the money… controls the government…
JH: The thing you have to understand about Samuel Upham… the man the Confederacy was so afraid of… is that he was the kind of guy who was always looking to make a quick buck.
For instance, he followed the gold rush out to California, but when that didn’t pan out, he came up with a new scheme....inspired by a boatload of cucumbers he saw arriving in San Francisco. He wrote in his memoir:
BEN TARNOFF: I had a vision. And in that vision I saw pickles.
JH: That’s Ben Tarnoff, who has written about early American schemers. Tarnoff says that upham thought he could sell pickles to the other
miners out west.
But when pickles didn't prove to be the get rich quick scheme Upham was dreaming of... he switched gears and headed home... to open his shop in Philadelphia...
BT: And you know he’s always looking for the next hustle….
And what he does is he opens a stationary shop on Chestnut Street where they sell - you know stationery, newspapers, novelty envelopes. All these kind of little knickknacks.
CK: At this store -- Upham pursued his next vision…. Selling exciting new creations like “Upham’s Freckles, Tan and Pimple Banisher!!”
And when the Civil War broke out… he saw a new opportunity...
JAMES FOSTER: He started making political satire envelopes, such as envelopes with the Confederate President, his head on a donkey (laughs). Right from the start he was already poking a bit of fun at the Confederacy and making some money off of it…
CK: This is James Foster…
JF: I am Samuel Upham’s great, great, great, great grandson.
CK And these novelty envelopes were really popular up North. The confederacy might have been a nightmare for Abraham Lincoln but for Upham it was proving to be good business
And it was about to get a lot better...Ben Tarnoff again.
BT: In February 1862, Sam Upham notices that that day’s issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer is flying off the shelves. People just keep coming into his shop asking for this copy of the Inquirer. And he can’t figure out what it is.
JH: So Upham grabs a copy of the paper.
BT: And on the front page is a reproduction of a Confederate note.
JH: He was holding in his hands a newspaper with a picture of a new Confederate five dollar bill. This was huge news.
Just imagine for a second that right now in 2017, California decided to print its own money…. We’d all just want to see it.
And that’s what was happening at Upham’s store... people had bought out all the newspapers. So Upham, the schemer, thought, wait a minute. This is an opportunity.
BT: He runs down to the Inquirer’s office and he buys the print that they had used to produce this. He was going to produce reproductions of this five dollar confederate note and sell them as souvenirs of the Confederacy. Because in early 1862, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that the Civil War wouldn’t take that long, right. That was the expectation for a while on both sides at the beginning is that it would be brief, it would be glorious, you know, it’d be over soon. Like you better get a souvenir of the war before it’s over.
JH: The engravings on these bills tell a story. The confederacy was using this new currency to say, “We’re the real America.” And like Union money, they featured people like George Washington and Andrew Jackson.
BT: These little pieces of paper really were pieces of propaganda, too. So claiming George Washington and putting him on your money is actually a pretty powerful political statement. ‘Cause you’re saying that we’re actually claiming the founding fathers as our own.
CK: Yeah, I mean they had Washington and these other people there. But I’m holding a copy of one of the early Confederate $5 bills, and looking at it you can see an engraving of their real America: it has slaves loading cotton …
JH: Yeah, I’ve got $10 bill here, it has slaves picking cotton
CK Right, and I got the $50 bill here, and, uh, it’s a little different. It has slaves hoeing cotton.
JH: So which of the bills, Chenj, talks about states rights?
CK: That would be none.
CK: So Upham started selling these replicas of Confederate money. He called them “mementos of the rebellion…”
JH: And Upham sold each bill for about a penny a piece. Here’s Marc Weidenmyer. Professor of Finance at Chapman University.
MW: he printed an initial batch, and he said, and I quote, "It sold like hotcakes."
JH: Upham had expected his replica bills to be popular….but these were selling so fast... almost too fast...which raised a question...
BT: Do you really need a thousand souvenirs? Right? I mean you probably just need one.
CK: Upham figured out that people weren’t just buying them as souvenirs….
Upham’s name and address were at the bottom of these bills. But he learned that people were clipping that part off, and then spending his souvenirs as real Confederate money.
And it was easy to pass them off this way… because the real confederate bills were junk -- all the good engravers were in the North and so was the good paper to print it on...So the Confederacy had to resort to newsprint to print their money on. Confederate dollars were even called greybacks, because they smudged so easily and they looked dirty.
JH: And the fact that Confederate currency was so crappy made Upham’s bills very convenient for customers who could buy them up north and
spend them down south...
People like: Cotton smugglers…
See, smuggling cotton was big business during the Civil War…To hurt the South’s economy… the North’s official policy was to stop buying their cotton….
But like the rest of the modern world... the North was deeply dependent on the cheap cotton that slavery produced.
So Northern mill owners found a way to get their cotton… through smugglers who bought bales of it with Upham’s fake bills…
Ben Tarnoff again…
BT: So if you can sneak into the South with Upham’s counterfeits, buy some cotton and then sneak back into the North you can sell it for an enormous profit. Particularly if it’s just counterfeit notes that you paid with to begin with.
JH: So to make it easier for cotton smugglers, Upham makes it possible to buy huge quantities of his fake money all at once.
BT: he starts selling them in stacks you can get 100 for 18 cents.
CK: And then he made it so that his customers didn’t even have to come to the store to buy his bills.
BT: He does fulfill a lot of these orders through the US post. Which is even better for a cotton smuggler cause if you’re in Memphis you don’t have to travel to Philadelphia to get these notes. And they’ll show up in your mailbox in a week or so, which is really convenient and of course unprecedented in the history of counterfeiting.
CK: That’s right… Samuel Upham was the Amazon dot com of fake money…
Upham had started out printing $5 Confederate bills, but later he started printing tens and twenties too. Then he got audacious and started counterfeiting $100 confederate bills.
Here’s his descendant, James Foster again:
JF: There must have been a second light bulb moment there where, like given production was ramping up and the type of people who were coming in. He'd have to know at some point that he kind of crossed a certain line into something else, you know?
JH: And before long… Upham’s counterfeits started to appeal to battalions of customers…. literally …. Ben Tarnoff
BT: I think very early on, Union soldiers must have heard about Upham’s operation.
all of those Union soldiers who are coming through the rail depot in Philadelphia on their way to the front, would have gone to Upham’s to buy counterfeits which they’ll then use when they’re in the South to purchase supplies from Southern civilians.
JH: With cotton smugglers and Union soldiers buying his money up north and spending it in the South... Upham had now gone from souvenir salesman to straight up counterfeiter. And as the months passed he watched waves of soldiers march off to war, armed with his bills.
After the break, an explosion of counterfeiting wreaks havoc on the Southern economy… And the Confederacy launches a secret plot to save their money.
JH: After years of looking for the motherlode Samuel Upham had finally hit it.
The small time shopkeeper was now printing millions of counterfeit bills. Here’s James Foster again….
JF: You know, what started out as a kind of a novelty act turned into a kind of, uh, you know, subversive operation of sorts.
JH: Confederate officials knew that this constant flow of fake money was potentially disastrous for the Southern economy. If too much money gets printed, the value of all the dollars in circulation goes down. So that bottle of sarsaparilla you bought one week could cost twice as much the next….
And The newspapers down South sounded the alarm
READ: “The Lynchburg Virginian cautions the people of the South against counterfeit Confederate notes being scattered broadcast by the Yankee thieves who are now devastating Virginia.
And these papers knew exactly who to blame for this problem:
READ: The swindle before us is an engraved note, and so like the original, that it can only be detected by the words, in very small print underneath the border line, "Facsimile — by S. C. Upham… Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.…”
JH: Down South Upham became known as the Yankee Scoundrel
JF: “Yankee Scoundrel” I would hope he would wear that as a kind of badge of honor… you know, he might’ve welcomed it with a kind of you know, mischievous um glee … embracing it.
CK: While the Confederacy was enraged at Upham. Other counterfeiters were figuring out how to copy him.
One operation sprung up in Cuba... smuggling bills into Florida.
But things really changed for Upham when another man got into the game... Winthrop E. Hilton, by all accounts he was really good. Here’s Ben Tarnoff again:
BT: He was a New York City printer and who prints fantastic counterfeits. I mean he uses the stone lithography technique, which is the same technique that the Confederate printers themselves were creating the genuine notes use.
JH: But Hilton found himself selling in an increasingly crowded market, with experienced competitors like Upham and others. So what do you do when you need to gain an edge on the competition? You advertise. In prestigious magazines like Harper’s Weekly.
CK: Hilton called his fake money “perfect facsimiles”
JH: [laughs] Upham literally warned customers not to be duped by fakes.
CK: I mean I just gotta say, it's amazing the kind of crimes white people can get away with.
Black folks couldn't even legally read but white folks are advertising counterfeit money - in the damn newspaper?!
JH: Antebellum Privilege my friend.
The competition was escalating fast. And a price war ensued...
At the top of his game Upham is selling a thousand bills for $40.
JH: Then Hilton came in and sells a thousand bills for four dollars.
CK: Upham slashed his price to match Hilton’s, but then Hilton started printing higher denominations 20s, 50s, 100s, and he sold whole batches of these totalling $20,000 in Confederate money for only 5 bucks.
JH: Inflation was tearing through the Southern economy. The Confederacy had been already printing buckets of money to finance the war effort… and now Upham and Hilton’s counterfeits…. were making the inflation problem worse…
And up North, people had a new name for Upham’s bills…. paper bullets.
The Confederacy was determined to shut the counterfeiters down.
JH: And at one point, Jefferson Davis put a $10,000 bounty on Upham’s head. The Confederacy declared the death penalty for any counterfeiter they caught. Here’s Ben Tarnoff….
BT: There was case where we know someone was actually punished that way - this Italian immigrant who was caught with a lot of counterfeit cash. And they hang him basically to make an example
CK: Confederate officials knew they had to stop it. And their plan was like a Mission Impossible plot.
First they go after Winthrop Hilton - Upham’s competitor...
Remember Hilton is a Northern counterfeiter making fake Southern money.
But the Confederates decide to make Hilton look like he’s really working with them…. they frame him...
As a traitor to the Union who is printing Rebel money...
Here’s how they did it.
The Confederates sent a fake note praising Hilton for his work
They knew that Northern agents would intercept the note.
And they were right. The Union fell for it hook, line and sinker
They started tracking Hilton, monitoring his comings and goings…. And when the time was right, Union agents stormed Hilton’s office... arrested him…. confiscated all his counterfeiting gear… and shut down his operation.
JH: They came for Upham too. When the highest ranking officials in the Lincoln cabinet found out about Upham’s operation, they paid him a visit.
Mainly they were worried that Upham could also be making fake Union money. After all if he was printing fake Southern bills and getting away with it… why wouldn't he try his hand at Northern money?
Here’s Marc Weidenmier
MW: His case was turned over to the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. And he investigated it and determined that, Upham was not printing Union counterfeit currency.
JH: So Upham was cleared of printing Union money … And since the Union didn’t recognize the Confederacy anyway, they didn’t care that he was printing fake Confederate bills
And so ...Upham just kept printing…
CK: So the North didn’t stop Upham, and the South didn’t catch him
What stopped him was his own success.
People like Upham and his competitor Winthrop Hilton sold so much fake money, they drove value of their own product to almost nothing.
BT: It gets so bad that the Confederate Treasury Secretary has to actually retire certain denominations because they’re too heavily counterfeited. Later in life, Upham claimed to have produced 15 million dollars worth of Confederate money. I mean it’s just a flood, flood of fake money.
CK: Eventually people wouldn’t buy Upham’s counterfeit notes, because they were worthless.
JH: So, Samuel Upham got out of the game and went back to selling tonics and cures.
After Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, the end of the Confederacy was only a matter of time.
They were overwhelmed not just by armies…. but hyperinflation….the Confederate dollar collapsed, And Samuel Upham’s counterfeits sped up that demise.
TARNOFF: think it’s important to assess his impact not only in a material way but in a psychological way.
He’s not just putting fake money into circulation which is bringing it down. He’s also making people doubt whether the Confederate national government has the resources, the ability to protect their own currency.
Paper money is only as valuable as the faith that people place in it. And everyone has to believe, “alright, this piece of paper, even though, you know the resale value of the paper itself is basically nothing, I believe that it’s 5 dollars.” You know, and that’s something that still powers our economy today. Upham is attacking that faith-based foundation.
CK: We found Samuel Upham’s story fascinating, but we don’t really think he’s a hero. He was pro-Union, but he wasn’t an abolitionist. In fact he was a garden variety racist. In other words he was an average 19th century white guy.
It’s hard to know why Samuel Upham did what he did. Publicly he always said he was just a guy who sold souvenirs. But even his descendants struggle with how to think about him now…
JF: I'd love to romanticize it and say that, "Oh, he was a badass patriot who was gleefully undermining the South's economy with his you know, pretty paper bills." But, I'm sure other things also factor in, for one thing he was also making money the whole time he was doing it. You know, so there is obviously a financial aspect and financial motivation too… as well as some patriotism and, and badassery.
JH: Uncivil is produced by Chris Neary, Chiquita Paschal, and Saidu Tejan Thomas. We had more help from MR Daniel. Our senior producer is Kimmie Regler. Editing by Caitlin Kenney, Jorge Just, and Pat Walters.
CK: Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.
Additional music features JC Brooks, Son Little, Rocko Walker, Haley Shaw and Saidu Tejan-Thomas.
JH: Our show was fact checked by Michelle Harris. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
Special thanks to Jeffrey Frieden. Ben Tarnoff’s book is called, A Counterfeiter’s Paradise: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three American Moneymakers.
CK: Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is uncivil.show. We’re on Twitter and Facebook at Uncivil Show. And don’t forget to join our facebook group: Uncivil Podcast
JH: And now a quick announcement
CK: The Chairman of the FCC has proposed ending Net Neutrality protections.
The consequences would be devastating for marginalized communities media outlets have misrepresented or failed to serve. People of color, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous peoples and religious minorities in the United States rely on the open internet to organize, access economic and educational opportunities, and fight back against systemic discrimination.
The FCC will be voting on this on December 14th. We suggest that you educate yourselves on this issue and let your voices be heard.
JH: I’m Jack Hitt.
CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.
JH: And on next week’s episode of Uncivil...
We’ll see you next week.