Faces of Counterfeiters Past: Mugshots from the United States Secret Service Collections

Last year marked the sesquicentennial of the establishment of the United States Secret Service, the federal law enforcement agency assigned to protect the nation’s highest elected leaders and investigate and prevent counterfeiting activities. However, when the agency was formed on July 5, 1865, their mission was not twofold but rather concerned with combating the illegal production, or counterfeiting, of money in the post-Civil War years. It wasn’t until after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, that the Secret Service began their protection duties.

By the end of the Civil War, between one-third and one-half of all the currency in circulation was counterfeit. Prior to a national currency, the ability of state banks to print their own currency led to a myriad of banknotes with various designs in circulation. By 1867, Congress had expanded the agency’s investigative duties to include any acts of fraud against the federal government.

As individuals were arrested for counterfeiting and other fraudulent activities, their photographs were taken and placed into albums where they served as a visual record of criminals for the Secret Service. Copies of the mugshots were sent to Secret Service headquarters in Washington, DC and then distributed to district offices across the country, including Cleveland, OH; Philadelphia, PA; and Pittsburgh, PA. The reverse side of the photographs provide varying levels of information about those arrested – from vital statistics, peculiar characteristics, and arrest information to simply the offender’s name.

In describing the offenders, the Chief of the Division (from 1888-1890), John S. Bell, urged agents to “take personal pride in carrying out the most minute details…” An example of this detail is observed in the description of George W. Shamen, “small creases on both cheeks; slow swinging walk; very quiet in his manner.” Also worth noting is the legitimate occupation of those arrested; a number of individuals held jobs as artists and printers which, without a doubt, assisted in the manufacturing of counterfeit notes and coins.

Photographs of individuals arrested for counterfeiting and currency offenses can be found in the following series: 87-CA, 87-PC, and 87-PCM. The photographs in these three series are of the carte-de-visite (CDV) format. A CDV consists of a thin photographic print mounted on a thick card support. Popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the CDV was small in size, at 2 1/2 by 4 inches, and cheap to produce. Because these photographs were often taken by local photographers near where the persons pictured were arrested, it is not uncommon to see the reverse side of the card bearing the photographer’s logo or advertisement.

Another interesting series of mugshots can be found in 87-CS, Photographs of Criminals and Suspects, ca. 1914 – ca. 1925, and typically include a frontal and side view of the offender with identifying information on the back. Additional images may be found at the National Archives at Washington, DC within Record Group 351, Entry PI-186 138, Identification Books for the DC Metropolitan Police Department from 1883-1890.

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8 Responses to Faces of Counterfeiters Past: Mugshots from the United States Secret Service Collections

  1. Fascinating images and research. A most enjoyable post.

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  2. J.J. Hensley says:

    These are fantastic. I’m a former USSS agent and I’ve only seen a images like these (on display in USSS Headquarters). Thanks for posting this fascinating piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reginald H Pitts says:

    Thanks for this post! I have been tracking down a group of counterfeiters that operated out of Philly in 1868-1870, a couple of whom ran afoul of the law and were tried and convicted in federal court (Eastern District of Pa.) Do the mug shots go back that far; I’d love to see if any of these folks were here. Thanks again.

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    • Beth Fortson says:

      Hi Reginald,

      Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Unfortunately, the mugshots we have only date back to ca. 1876. A few individuals have two mugshots from two separate occasions of being arrested – often years apart. If you would like to submit a request to our reference staff, please send an email to stillpix@nara.gov and they can conduct a search for you. In the email, provide the names of the individuals and the information from your comment above. Don’t forget to include your contact information including a mailing address.

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  4. MeghanBailey says:

    Have these photos been digitized or are there plans? It is rumored in my family my great grandfather was a counterfeiter.

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    • Beth Fortson says:

      Hi Meghan,

      These records are not currently planned for digitization. With the amount of interest this post has generated, it is something we might think about for the future. If you are not able to visit the College Park, MD location, feel free to send a reference request to stillpix@nara.gov and include contact information including a mailing address so our Reference staff can respond.

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  5. Pingback: Engraving, Inking, Trimming: The Production of Paper Currency in 1914 | The Unwritten Record

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