Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ben Tarnoff's "Moneymakers"

Ben Tarnoff is the author of Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters. He has worked at Lapham's Quarterly and graduated from Harvard in 2007.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Moneymakers and reported the following:
On page 99 of Moneymakers, a counterfeiter's life is spared. It's October 13, 1812, and the United States and the United Kingdom are at war. Shortly before daybreak, American batteries begin shelling positions in British Canada across the Niagara River. This is covering fire for an American invasion force paddling furiously across the river to the town of Queenston, in modern-day Ontario. The subsequent Battle of Queenston Heights is a victory for the British, who succeed in repelling the American attack. But during the fighting the British commander, Isaac Brock, is killed. Brock had promised to execute a counterfeiter held in his custody, David Lewis. Fortunately for Lewis, Brock didn't live to fulfill his promise. The battle that killed Canada's greatest general also saved Lewis's life. Lewis sat behind bars until mid-November, when another stroke of luck set him free. An American bombardment of the fort where he was imprisoned did enough damage to the walls of the jail to enable his escape.

On page 99, the life of a single counterfeiter connects to the story of America as a whole. This kind of connection happens throughout the book. Big-picture history, of the sort that belongs in textbooks, impacts life at the ground level. Big-picture history enables the careers of individual counterfeiters. In this example, the War of 1812 spares Lewis's life and allows his escape. But Lewis would owe his later success as a counterfeiter to the financial evolution of early America--more specifically, to the explosion of note-issuing banks in Pennsylvania in the first decades of the 19th century. This "bancomania" created new opportunities for counterfeiting by flooding the nation with a diverse variety of paper bills. Counterfeiters like Lewis weren't just passive beneficiaries of American history. They were canny manipulators of their environment, men and women who pinpointed and exploited the vulnerabilities that made America a haven for counterfeiters for hundreds of years.
Read an excerpt from Moneymakers, and learn more about the book and author at Ben Tarnoff's website.

--Marshal Zeringue