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

Escape Tunnel

Escape Tunnel

Despite growing up in a law-abiding family, Hiram Lepper was a small-time crook that spent most of his life in prison. His story would be relegated to the scrap heap of crime history if it weren’t for the fact that he made two daring escapes from the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Born in 1866 in Ionia, Michigan, Hiram had one honest occupation — in 1888 he worked as a clerk for a hardware company in Grand Rapids. His first arrest came in 1893 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for selling stolen silk handkerchiefs while also carrying a razor and a revolver in his pockets.

More arrests and imprisonments followed, mostly for a type of counterfeiting called “raising” in which bills of a lower denomination were altered to look as if they had a higher value. He also carried out robberies, including one of a priest, to obtain the cash for counterfeiting. Between 1897 and 1913 he was rarely out of prison, earning sentences in Michigan State Prison, Joliet Prison in Illinois, and the federal penitentiaries in Atlanta, Georgia and Leavenworth, Kansas. He tended to be an uncooperative prisoner — talking back, refusing to obey orders, breaking things and making escape attempts — so he generally served his full time.

Hiram Lepper_Leavenworth

Inmate prison photos (intake) of Hiram Lepper, June 10, 1911, Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Collection of NARA-Kansas City.

In May 1914 Hiram was incarcerated for a third stretch in the federal prison in Atlanta. He and another prisoner escaped from the tuberculosis camp, in late December 1914, by scaling the prison wall with an improvised ladder. He was recaptured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the following May after stealing $14 from his landlady’s daughter and raising the bills from $1 to $20. He was returned to the penitentiary.

His next escape attempt was a risky scheme that took time to implement. It also required planning and hard work.

In December 1923, four prisoners, including Hiram, escaped through a tunnel barely wide enough for one man. The tunnel led from a tubercular tent on the prison grounds that had housed him and another escapee, Frank Haynes, to a point fifty feet beyond the stone wall surrounding the prison.

Prison officials believed that Lepper and Haynes dug the tunnel using only a small shovel and a miner’s lantern. It had taken them at least two months to excavate it. The men clandestinely carried the loose gravel and dirt they removed to a point 75 feet away from their tent. The entrance was through a trap door in the wooden floor of the tent. Below the trap door was a drop of eight feet into the tunnel. Three of the escapees, including Hiram, were traced to Indiana, but there the trail went cold.

Lepper news clip

News clipping from the Altoona Tribune, Altoona, Pennsylvania, Sat., Feb. 2, 1924.

Hiram Lepper was recaptured in Baltimore after five weeks on the lam. Though he requested parole in 1930, it wasn’t granted. He died of a heart attack in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on February 5, 1938, having spent more than half his life in prison. His family brought his body home to Michigan for burial.

Featured photo: 1897 carte de visite mugshot, front and back, of Hiram Lepper. Collection of the author.