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Harry Cole

Batavia’s Wealthiest Man


Gerard Muhl

Virtue is its own reward but sometimes the lack of virtue has its unique compensation. An example of this is the long and hardly virtuous career of Batavia native Harry Cole. For nearly forty years in the mid-1800’s, Cole was a successful counterfeiter. In fact, Cole never held an honest job in his life, but was able to spend upwards of a hundred thousand dollars annually—this at a time when a school teacher or an average farmer might be lucky to take home three to four hundred dollars in a good year!

Harry Cole was born in 1821 and began passing counterfeit cash as a young man working on the Erie Canal in the 1840’s. Cole may have rationalized his activity by noting that the local economy was actually helped if more money was circulating locally. If an unsuspecting person received a bogus note he most likely would try to pass it as soon as possible. It would not lie idle in a bank where it might be recognized for what it was and be confiscated.

The bogus money, however, had to be very good and continue to pass or people would begin to mistrust all currency and the economy would grind to a halt. To start with, Harry Cole was acting as a middle-man passing counterfeit notes printed, most likely in Rochester, and sold to him by a wholesaler. Before the Civil War, banks could print their own currency, and print they did. A person in western New York might be asked to accept over one hundred different bills of different designs in his daily business. What fallow ground for the counterfeiter, if he was good.

By all accounts Harry Cole was good. As his success at passing bogus currency increased it is reported that he was a big spender with many friends. The friends proved fleeting when in the mid-1800s he made one fatal career mistake. Arrested for passing bogus cash, he was sentenced to Auburn prison where he was to spend ten years in a six by eight foot cell. His luck partially held, however, and he was pardoned in 1859 after serving three years of the sentence. He immediately moved to New York City.

In New York Harry Cole met Joshua Minor, a counterfeiter from Steuben County. He was now learning the fine points of the big time illicit money trade. Also aiding in his education were Thomas Congdon and Phil Hargraves, and after 1861, Thomas Ballard. By day Ballard worked for a printing house that made state bank notes. In 1862 the national government stopped banks from issuing their own notes and so Ballard and the gang turned their attention to printing the new U. S. national currency.

Cole was now traveling extensively between New York City and Philadelphia wholesaling the gang’s freshly printed notes. Their profit was between eighteen and thirty five cents on the dollar. Better notes commanded the premium price.

While in Philadelphia in 1865, Cole joined Rensselaer Abrams in a scheme to print fractional currency (U. S. notes in denominations of less than a dollar then circulating). Abrams made the currency-printing plates, but for them to pass undetected Cole decided more work would have to be done on them. He thus took the plates to Thomas Ballard in New York City to touch up the final engraving work.

While Cole was away, Abrams was arrested in 1866 for trying to pass notes from the uncorrected plates. That put an end to the scheme though Cole retained his freedom

In 1869 Cole used some of his ill-gotten gains to get a new twenty dollar bill engraved and printed. With his occasional partner, Joshua Minor, they began wholesaling these notes. In fact, their notes were being passed by associates in Troy, Amboy (N.Y.), Schenectady, New York City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, and of course in Batavia. The operation became so big that it soon caught the eye of the newly formed Secret Service.

The next two years were probably the best for Cole; he married, bought a rather grand house in New York, and appeared to be one of the wealthiest men in his upscale neighborhood. A counterfeiter always worries about tomorrow and so their motto was, “spend like there is no tomorrow.”

To a degree Cole was right. Tomorrow came but with it also came in 1871 an arrest on federal counterfeiting charges. His free spending caught the attention of too many people. To gain his freedom and to get the charges against him dropped he agreed to inform on his partner Joshua Minor. Furthermore, so that he would be a credible witness in court, he obtained a pardon for his past crimes. A free man after Minor was convicted, Cole moved to Philadelphia. However, he did not give up his ways.

In 1875 Harry Cole ordered $50,000 in counterfeit five dollar notes from Tom Congdon then still living in New York City. Once more the deal fell through when the Secret Service seized Congdon’s printing plant. Cole was not apprehended in this case but the federal agents were looking for him.

The following year while visiting New York from his home in Philadelphia, Cole was arrested and put in the “Tombs.” His wife Effie was also arrested and charged in a matter for which the Secret Service knew neither she nor Harry were guilty. Under pressure the Coles agreed to turn evidence against counterfeiters in several states.

Effie Cole informed on Nathaniel Kinsey, Jr., who was making a new currency plate in Cincinnati, also on Joe Gordon who was planning to steal a quantity of the special paper on which the government was printing national banknotes. The Coles were released and returned to Philadelphia but not before the federal agents tried to set up a sting using Harry Cole.

Somewhat reluctantly Cole went with Secret Service agents to Cincinnati to “talk” with counterfeit currency engraver Charles Ulrich. Cole was put up in one of the city’s finest hotels where he met with Ulrich. Cole reported back that Ulrich had gone straight. In fact, Cole actually convinced Ulrich to come to Philadelphia to work with him and printer James Ott in a new undercover partnership.

Charles Ulrich’s life to this point reads like a mystery novel. A German immigrant, he came to New York in the 1860’s where he engraved many printing plates for fake bills. He next moved to Cincinnati where he continued his trade. A bigamist, he was turned in to the police by one of his wives in 1867 and was sentenced to an Ohio jail. He was pardoned in 1876 just before he met Harry Cole.

Early in 1877, Ulrich created for Cole’s gang an almost perfect fifty dollar plate as well as a five dollar plate. Working in a house of a relative of Effie Cole the gang began printing notes for their wholesalers.

In the spring of 1877 an informer told the Secret Service to keep Cole’s house under continuous surveillance. Harry got wind of the government’s renewed interest in him and moved the printing plant in June. After printing notes from a new five and a fifty dollar plate the plant was dismantled in March 1878. At fifty seven years, old Harry Cole had enough cash to retire but only if his notes were not detected and published in law-enforcement bulletins.

When he finished his work in Philadelphia, Charles Ulrich moved to Scotch Plains, New York, where he again took up his old trade. Once again he was arrested and this time agreed to turn informer and became part of a sting operation aimed at Harry Cole. In December 1878, Cole visited Ulrich’s home and discussed his plan for a new operation. At Ulrich’s urging Cole went into great detail. As his story ended, two Secret Service men burst from a closet where they overheard everything. Cole was arrested.

Over the next few weeks the Secret Service tracked down all of Cole’s suppliers in Philadelphia. Number two man in the gang, James Ott, agreed to testify against Cole in exchange for a reduced sentence. With nowhere to turn, Harry Cole entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to a twelve years in prison.

Thus ended an over-forty-year career as a counterfeiter. At its height Cole was making and spending nearly one hundred thousand dollars a year (in today’s dollars that would be a figure more like one million dollars). In the end he died in prison.

His career coincided with the rise of the Secret Service and its blossoming into a formidable force to track and stop the issue of bogus money. Perhaps what really stopped Harry Cole was greed—always the desire for more. But money could not have been the only driving force here. The love of the challenge, of the chase, and of being the best, must also have fueled the drive.

Counterfeiting today is under control but there is a certain nostalgia looking back to those rougher, less regulated days when so much was not a foregone conclusion.

© 2005, Gerard Muhl
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