Shortly after the end of the Revolutionary war the new American country needed currency, and Stephen Burroughs was happy to oblige. He printed more different banknotes than anyone in his day. Unfortunately, they were all counterfeits.
The story of Stephen Burroughs starts out conventionally enough. Burroughs grew up in the small town of Coventry, N.H. He was born in 1765, the son of a prominent Presbyterian minister.
Like many minister’s kids he liked mischief. For example, stealing watermelons was a common tradition in Burroughs’ day. But he embellished on the tradition. When one of his neighbors grew tired of having his produce pilfered, the angry farmer decided to stake out his field one night. Burroughs made use of this bit of intelligence and approached the farmer’s son. He had just seen, he told him, someone slipping into the family watermelon patch. The young man hurried off to catch the “thief” and hilarity ensued.
Most of Burroughs’ story is derived from his memoirs, which he published first at age 33 and polished and republished repeatedly for decades. Historians believe Burroughs’ memoirs contain a lot of truth, and some embellishment. But with a life as dramatic as his, he didn’t really need embellishment.
At age 14 he ran off to join the Continental Army, but couldn’t manage to convince the enlisting officers that he was old enough to serve. So instead he joined up on the crew of a privateer in Newburyport, Mass. While on board he assisted the medic/doctor on the ship and learned some rudimentary medicine.
Dropout and Fraud
His father sent him to Dartmouth College, but he lasted only a short while – his penchant for pranks landed him afoul of the college leaders. Burroughs next tried his hand at medicine, passing himself off unsuccessfully as a doctor. Following that he turned to the ministry. Though untrained, Burroughs had access to his father’s sermons. Armed with a few of these, he headed to Massachusetts to sell himself as a minister.
Landing in Pelham, Mass. – home to rabble-rouser Daniel Shays — Burroughs was soon outed as a fraud and chased out of town by a hostile congregation. Though he failed in his pursuit of the ministry, his time in Massachusetts shaped his thinking. While there he encountered a con man who sold shares was selling shared in his alchemy process, which he claimed could turn copper into gold. When the con man collected all the investors he could, he fled town.
The appeal of alchemy was partially rooted in the extreme shortage of hard currency following the Revolutionary War. Congress had notoriously printed worthless paper money, and people did not view bank notes as reliable. They craved hard currency. Lacking that, however, Burroughs observed that private banks were building successful followings for their own bank notes and coins.
The only reason paper money had value, Burroughs concluded, was because people agreed that it did. So did it matter if it was counterfeit or not? Counterfeiting was illegal, though fairly common in America both before and after the Revolution. Though many paper notes bore the legend: “Tis Death to Counterfeit,” actual punishments were much more lenient – and of course the counterfeiter had to get caught, which clever counterfeiters could avoid. Burroughs was not clever – at least not yet.
Burroughs acquired some counterfeit coins from a colleague and attempted to pass them at an apothecary in Springfield, Mass. He was arrested on the spot. At his trial, Burroughs past efforts at impersonating a minister helped seal his fate. He was sentenced to jail at Boston’s Castle Island prison. In 1788, Burroughs emerged from jail a wiser, though not reformed, man. His fascination with currency had taken root.
Burroughs next tried his hand at school teaching, but was accused of seducing his students He made off to Long Island and then to Georgia, where land speculation was reaching a mania pitch. Burroughs passed himself off as a surveyor and gained the confidence of none other than Robert Morris, the millionaire who financed much of the American Revolution. When the land bubble burst, Morris and his many investors, including Burroughs, were left broke.
Burroughs headed back north, but this time he decided that his notoriety, and the presence of ample law enforcement, worked against him in New England. He didn’t stop at Massachusetts. He traveled first through Vermont and then over the border into Canada. Here, with his wife and children, he established a mill and set himself up as a proper counterfeiter.
Of course, Burroughs had only himself to thank for his notoriety. He first published his memoirs at the age of 33, and they remained in print into the late 1900s. In Canada Burroughs found a perfect opportunity. The border with Canada was loosely policed despite the smuggling that had gone on for decades. Most of the activity involved goods from the United States flowing to the loyalists who had relocated to Canada after the Revolution.
Burroughs set up shop in two Canadian locations: Shipton and Stanstead. He became a prolific counterfeiter. Paper money was, at the time, generated by individual banks. During Burroughs’ time in prison, paper money had grown much more acceptable. Burroughs became a master at reproducing bills from a variety of sources. His fame brought criminal partners flocking to him. He generated a steady flow of counterfeit money heading down from Canada to all the states.
From time to time his partners would come to grief, arrested and tried for passing counterfeit bills. In the course of their trials it would come out that the men were merely pawns, employed by Burroughs, to pass the counterfeit.
Cat and Mouse
Meanwhile, relations between the United States and Canada were strained. Canada had little interest in chasing down the American counterfeiter.
Detectives and bounty hunters dispatched by American banks were often thwarted by Burroughs’ neighbors. He had befriended and provided his neighbors with both cash and amateur medical assistance. As the bank men grew more aggressive, they managed to push Burroughs farther north into Canada. But his bills, drawn on banks from all the New England states and beyond, continued pouring south.
Hired men from the banks would harass Burroughs’ operations and confiscate his money from time to time, but he simply printed more. All the while, his legend grew. From his northern outpost, Burroughs enjoyed his game of cat and mouse. When the banking firm Gilbert & Dean announced they had created a counterfeit-proof bill, Burroughs mailed down a taunting letter and a counterfeited version of their currency.
End of an Era
Finally, in 1808, authorities on both sides of the border agreed to crack down on the counterfeiting with tough new laws. Burroughs, aware that he had lost the last of his friends in high places, announced he would counterfeit no longer. Though eventually arrested in Canada, he won a pardon.
Evidence suggests that Burroughs did finally go straight. He converted to Catholicism and became prominent in the church around 1810. His critics suggested he was probably in the business of selling Papal pardons.
Burroughs died in 1840 in Canada, a free and wealthy man.
Thanks to The Alchemy of the Self: Stephen Burroughs and the Counterfeit Economy of the Early Republic by Stephen Mihm and Memoirs of Stephen Burroughs, by Stephen Burroughs.
Images: Coin molds By Original author unknown – The outlaws of Cave-in-Rock : historical accounts of the famous highwaymen and river pirates who operated in pioneer days upon the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and over the old Natchez trace, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56779619.
This story was updated in 2021.