The Counterfeiting Couple

The Counterfeiting Couple

Counterfeiting is a serious crime in America, but it’s nowhere near the problem it was in the nineteenth century. According to the National Archives, in the years after the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all currency that changed hands in the United States was counterfeit. That’s an astonishing statistic! Imagine how you’d feel if there were a 50% chance you’d be given fake money in your change when you went shopping.

The United States Secret Service was born out of the need for a federal law enforcement agency to combat this rampant counterfeiting. Andrew L. Drummond was an early Secret Service detective who later became an author. One of the stories in his 1909 book, “True Detective Stories,” was about his arrest of a counterfeiter named Cooper Wiltsey:

A big powerful man, he had about as wicked eyes as I ever saw in any human being. Men generally hated him. Such women as he met invariably liked him. He was about fifty years old, but the sprinkling of gray in his hair did not handicap him. Always there was some woman to be found who would swear that Cooper Wiltsey was all right.

Drummond sounds a little envious of Wiltsey’s success with the ladies, doesn’t he?

At any rate, in 1878 Drummond got word that Wiltsey was running a counterfeiting operation out of a house in Philadelphia. He worked with the local police to investigate and they located the house where they believed Wiltsey was making counterfeit coins in a room on the second floor. He gave a dramatic description in his book of the scene that unfolded the night the couple was arrested:

As I burst into the room my eye quickly caught two figures—that of a woman standing as if she were cast in bronze and that of Wiltsey leaping at me with a fifteen inch stiletto-like carving knife clasped in his hand. I leveled my revolver at his head and told him to stop or I would kill him. He stopped. As I called, Wiltsey’s eyes shifted from me to the head of the stairs.

Wiltsey book

Thinking he had the situation under control, Drummond foolishly put his gun in his pocket and grabbed Wiltsey’s wrist. But Wiltsey refused to give up the knife and tried to cut Drummond’s fingers with it. Fortunately for the detective, his police back up appeared at that moment with their guns drawn. Wiltsey dropped the knife.

Wiltsey and his partner, Sarah Page, were in the process of melting a mixture of tin and antimony and pouring it into molds when they were arrrested. After the metal cooled and was removed from the molds, they planned to use an electric battery to add a thin layer of silver-plating to the fake coins. One silver dollar had enough silver in it to plate five hundred of the coins. Each “dollar” would be sold for between 25 and 35 cents.

Wiltsey was convicted of counterfeiting. Page was acquitted.

The Times of Philadelphia claimed that Sarah Page was Wiltsey’s mistress. But based on genealogical records, it seems more likely that she was his wife.

Cooper Wiltsey was born in New Jersey in 1833. In 1853 he and his wife Sarah had their first child, Benjamin. By 1864 they’d added another five children to their family. Wiltsey served in the 24th New Jersey Infantry during Civil War, achieving the rank of 2nd lieutenant.

The big surprise is that Wiltsey, the future counterfeiter, was employed as a constable in Gloucester City in 1870.

In 1882 Sarah listed herself as “widow of Cooper” in the Camden City Directory, but this was a little face-saving fib. Her husband was still alive and serving his sentence at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. By 1885 Wiltsey was back at home with Sarah and the kids, according to the New Jersey State Census. By 1891 he had his own restaurant in Gloucester City.

Sarah Wiltsey died in 1902. Cooper passed away “after a lingering illness” in May 1904. Both are buried in Gloucester City’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The perplexing question is why the Wiltseys, who appeared to be upstanding citizens, decided to become counterfeiters. Possibly enforcing the law somehow enticed Wiltsey into breaking it. As to his great success with the ladies, it seems that Drummond took some artistic license with his story, because Wiltsey seems to have been more of a family man than a Casanova.

Featured photos: Sarah Page, CDV mugshot from the National Archives Collection and Cooper Wiltsey, photo from the Vancouver Daily World, December 26, 1908

Taking Her Oath

Taking Her Oath

I was very fortunate to purchase this news photo on eBay a few years ago. It shows newly minted SFPD policewoman, Blanche Payson, being sworn in by Police Chief D.A. White. I suspect the photographer was careful to make sure the photo on the wall of famed police detective, Isaiah Lees, was also visible in the picture. Lees, who died in 1902, has been credited as being the policeman who came up with the idea of the Rogues’ Gallery (mugshot photography). While that claim can be debated, there’s no doubt he was an early user of photography to help identify criminal suspects.

Blanche Payson_marked

Here’s the full photograph. It was printed in reverse and a note on the back specifies that it needs to be flipped “so hands will be right.”

But back to Blanche: She was also a first. The photo was likely taken to announce the fact that San Francisco had hired its first “special” policewoman. Blanche would be charged with directing traffic and keeping things safe and orderly for women and children at the Toyland exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. “Mashers” (men who sexually harassed women) were to be her special quarry. She also guarded the Liberty Bell while it was on display at the expo.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Bush in Santa Barbara in 1881 to Thomas and Sarah Bush. By the time she married Eugene Payson, a commercial traveler, in 1908, she had changed her first name to Blanche. In 1910 Payson placed an announcement in the local papers that he wouldn’t be responsible for his wife’s debts. The couple divorced but she kept his surname. In 1923 she married Allen Thurman Love, but that marriage also ended in divorce.

Blanche was hired in part because she had family connections to policing: her uncle, Dan Martin, served as the first police chief of Santa Barbara. She also came recommended for the job by William Pinkerton, the renowned private detective of the Pinkerton Agency (“We Never Sleep”).

Blanche Payson advice (better photo) - Newspapers.com

Blanche directing traffic at the Panama Exposition.

Another useful attribute was that Blanche was an imposing physical presence. Depending on which press report you believe, she was somewhere between six foot four and six foot six inches tall. Not to mention that when she was hired, she weighed in at 235 pounds.

After the exposition ended Blanche moved to Hollywood and took up a new career: film actress. It’s possible the acting bug bit her when she was essentially “on stage” while working at the expo.

She made her first film, “Wife and Auto Trouble,” at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios in 1916. She successfully transitioned to “talkies” and made many more films, mostly slapstick comedies, over the next three decades. With her towering height, she often played the “heavy” for comedians, including The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. She continued to appear in films until 1943.

Blanche Payson in reunion photo - Newspapers.com

Blanche (upper left) at a reunion of the Mack Sennett “Bathing Beauties” in 1950.

In 1925 a reporter interviewed Blanche about her police career. She informed him that, in her opinion, women made excellent police officers and were particularly well suited to being traffic cops. “Women do not lose their heads so easily as men. They do not burst into profanity on such slight provocation. They are not so dictatorial as men,” said Blanche.

Blanche died in Los Angeles on the 4th of July in 1964.