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

A Little Coke Please

A Little Coke Please

Two youths, victims of the cocaine habit, were brought before Magistrate Kernochan, in the West Side Court, yesterday morning. One was a mere boy of 16, anxious to have his mother send him away where he couldn’t get the drug. The other was a confirmed user of cocaine, and when sentenced to six months on the Island, begged for “just a little ‘coke,’ please.”

The New York Times, September 3, 1907

Bernard Mulroy, age 23, the older of the two young men in court that day, “writhed as he begged the court to give him some of the drug before sending him away” to the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. The prison, now gone, was located on what is currently called Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The Jersey City-born son of Irish immigrants told the magistrate that he’d been a cocaine user since the age of 18.

He’d been arrested the previous Sunday near the Hudson River and 59th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough neighborhood known for violence and disorder. He was warming his hands at a small fire he’d built when he was taken into custody. It’s possible that building a fire outdoors was illegal by then in New York City and that was why Bernard was hauled in to court. Or maybe the cops figured he was a vagrant and they wanted him off the streets.

allenscoke

It couldn’t have been his cocaine habit that brought him into court. Cocaine was legal then in America, though by the time Bernard was arrested in 1907 there was increasing recognition of cocaine’s tendency to turn its users into desperate addicts. If he had the money Bernard could have purchased coke at the corner drug store without a prescription. It was getting the money that was the crux of his problem.

Bernard’s Bertillon photos, measurements and personal details were recorded six months before his September arrest, after he was hauled in for burglarizing an apartment in the city.

Bernard Mulroy_back_marked

A year later, on November 21, 1908, with winter about to descend on New York City, Bernard again found himself on a boat headed to the prison on Blackwell’s Island. This time he’d been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six months incarceration. It must have been comforting to know he’d be warmer in prison than he would have been on the streets. However there was a downside — Bernard got addicted to heroin during his second stay in the island’s prison.

Blackwell Island Penit.1910.NYCMA

The penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, c. 1910, New York City Municipal Archives

heroinThe German drug company, Bayer, developed diacetylmorphine in the late nineteenth century. Between 1898 and 1910 diacetylmorphine was marketed under the trade name “Heroin” as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant, supposedly without morphine’s addictive side effects. Its sale wasn’t regulated in the United States until 1914, when it became available only by prescription. In 1924, with better understanding of its addictive properties and the tolerance that develops in users, Congress banned the sale, importation and manufacture of heroin. These laws came too late to help Bernard.

After he was arrested in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 1915 for trying to sell heroin to passersby, Bernard was quoted in an article for The Evening World newspaper titled “Sing Sing is Popular Summer Resort Now.” He claimed he wanted to be convicted and sent to Sing Sing Penitentiary.

“Movies and baseball for mine,” said Bernard Mulroy at Police Headquarters to-day. “I’m a sick bum in New York, but in Sing Sing I’ll be a person of some consequence, get my meals and recreation regularly and regain my health…New York is no place for a drug fiend these days. I want to get cured and go to Sing Sing and learn to be a telegraph operator.” Bernard was not alone — the news report noted that ten young men who’d been arrested within the previous three days had also asked to be sent to Sing Sing, supposedly because they wanted to play baseball in the prison yard.

Bernard’s wish to sojourn in the notorious prison in Ossining, New York wasn’t granted. Instead he was sent to a prison on Hart’s Island in the Bronx that was used to house overflow prisoners from the city jails.

On August 24, 1916, Bernard died in Manhattan at the age 29. Details of his death are not known, but his final resting place may be on Hart’s Island, where he spent time as a prisoner. The island is now uninhabited and it’s the site of a massive potter’s field cemetery. More than a million people who died penniless in New York have been buried there over the years. Bernard might easily be one of them.

Featured photos: Bertillon photos of Bernard Mulroy taken March 5, 1907, collection of the author.

Trenton Al

Trenton Al

He was known as “Trenton Al”, “French Al” and “Albert St. Claire.” His real name was Francis Alphonse Voullaire. His crimes were mostly of the white-collar variety — embezzlement, bribery, forgery, passing worthless checks — Al didn’t like to get his hands dirty. Held as prisoner #209 by the Jersey City Police, his measurements and mugshots were taken on October 5, 1901. Though he was five feet eight inches tall, his derby hat, worn high on his head, made him look taller.

The youngest son of a wealthy family, Al was born in 1863 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Seymour Voullaire, was a successful criminal attorney. However wealth does not necessarily buy happiness and his parents’ marriage was extraordinarily stormy. His mother, Ann Catherine — known as “Kitty” — was said to be very appealing to the opposite sex; at any rate she took a lot of lovers. After trying to kill one of Kitty’s lovers in a pistol duel — in which he was injured — Seymour had enough. Despite being Catholic, in 1867 he and Kitty divorced. While Al was still a child, another of his mother’s lovers murdered her second husband in an effort to secure the lady for himself. (The man was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death).

One would think that was enough drama for a lifetime, but no! In 1883 another lover of Kitty’s, Horace Shepard, suffering from depression and remorse over his relationship with Kitty, murdered her and then turned the gun on himself. It was quite a scandal — the two lovers were found in dead in bed in their fashionable New York City rooms. He left a note saying they would be “happier in death.”

Al married young and, unlike his parents, he stayed married. His wife, Annie, raised their six children while he cheated on her with a series of floozies, some of whom were involved in his illegal exploits.

Voullaire Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison Admission Register for Alphonse Voullaire. New York State Archives.

He was well educated and had honest employment, often as a bookkeeper or clerk, but Al’s penchant for criminal activities inevitably got him into trouble. A forgery conviction in 1892 landed him in Sing Sing Prison for two years. Following his release from prison, he was arrested for writing bad checks. Then he compounded the problem by trying to bribe officials to get out of jail.

Alphonse Voullaire_back_marked

Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (back). Collection of the author.

In 1902, claiming to be a major player in New York City criminal circles, Al persuaded a New York Herald newspaper reporter to help him to pull off some robberies and sell the proceeds to fences. The idea was that they would bribe NYPD detectives to look the other way, proving the detectives’ complicity in the crimes. The reporter would get a great story and Al would get some of the loot. The plan backfired when detectives (possibly tipped-off by the paper) arrested Al and his reporter colleague instead of taking bribes. The absence of listings for him in city directories between 1902 and 1908 may indicate Al served another stint in prison for the Herald debacle.

After 1908 Al went by his given name — Francis — and worked as a self-employed “traffic expert” in New Jersey, where he lived with his long-suffering wife and children. It’s hard to say what a traffic expert did back then and it’s impossible to know if “Trenton Al,” whose life certainly started out badly, left the bad life completely behind.

Featured image: Bertillon Card of Alphonse Voullaire (front). Collection of the author.