Once Upon a Time

Counterfeiters passed a lot of bad coins in 1908

This photo of George Koch, a Quincy Police Department detective, appeared in "Pictorial Quincy, Past and Present," a booklet published in 1908 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate of 1858. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Dec. 29, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Dec. 29, 2019 12:13 am

Today when authorities warn of bad bills or counterfeit money it's usually 20 dollar bills. In 1908 the problem was bogus coins -- silver dollars, dimes and quarters. While it might seem not worth the trouble to create, such a coin could purchase much more than today. One 1908 dollar, adjusted for inflation would purchase almost $28 worth of goods today.

In 1907 James Kelly Cole was in Quincy, hired by the carnival as a "spieler" to entice people into the main tent to watch the great train robbery in moving pictures. He had ended up in town after jumping bond in Chicago. Among other duties, Cole sang songs with the carnival and did a comedy routine with his friend Knapp. The two also ran a crooked dice game with "shaped dice." While in Quincy he was approached by a man named Frank Martin who wanted him to help pass counterfeit money. When the carnival moved to Hannibal, Mo., Martin followed and again approached Cole. This time Cole agreed to the scheme to pass counterfeit, or as it was known then, to "shove the queer."

The two moved on to St. Louis, where their career as counterfeiters lasted only one week and was ended by a female detective, Eva Herndon, who had trailed Cole from Chicago.

Upon his arrest a bogus 50-cent piece was found in his pocket, and he confessed. Cole also turned over to authorities the counterfeiting apparatus that was in his rented room on Washington Avenue.

Cole came before Judge Dwyer in St. Louis, where he acted as his own counsel and used his carnival techniques to effectively plead for leniency. He was sentenced to two years each on three counts, but the sentences would run concurrently, and he received credit for the three months already served in jail awaiting trial. His leniency plea included the promise of changing his ways, returning to Chicago to support his 74-year-old father, who was epileptic, and to help his poor mother, 64. The mention of his mother was accompanied by tears rolling down his face. Cole was sent to prison in Leavenworth, Kan., for his short sentence.

In early 1908, Quincy was plagued by bad coins, especially on the north side. Several merchants, banks, a church and street cars had counterfeit coins used for payment. Local papers advised citizens to be on the watch.

In February 1908, Wedley Smith of 925 Chestnut was arrested in the midst of a fierce snowstorm on suspicion of counterfeiting coins. Rumors had reached Detective George Koch that Smith had approached two men with a proposal that they pass bogus coins for him. Koch and Chief Robbins went to Smith's home but found little evidence. A tin can was standing on the stove holding a small amount of melted metal. Smith, described as "a good-looking young colored man," by The Daily Whig in February 1908, had come to the attention of authorities the previous year when he was arrested about 4 a.m. on a downtown street carrying a silver pitcher concealed beneath his coat. It was later proved that he bought the pitcher at a secondhand store, and he was released without charge. Smith had left town after this arrest only to return a few months later. He spent those months in Hannibal and Bowling Green, Mo, where it was later reported that he was twice sentenced to the penitentiary for burglary and implicated in a murder case.

The imitation coins had been a problem in Quincy for several weeks in early 1908. Detective Koch said the counterfeits were made with excellent dies and could only be told from true coins by careful inspection. The ring of the coins when tapped on a hard surface was good, but the weight was a little light.

The city released Smith for lack of evidence, but he was rearrested by U.S. Deputy Marshal Elmer Grade and held for a preliminary hearing before the U.S. commissioner. In a preliminary hearing, Smith's attorney, J.T. Gilmer, became so angry with Koch's testimony that he stormed out of the courtroom and waived the preliminary hearing. Smith was bound over for trial on the word of two men who testified that Smith had shown them a counterfeit dime with extra metal around the edges from the die. However, no counterfeit coins and no dies or die making materials were found in Smith's home, with the exception of tiny scraps of plaster of Paris and some metal fragments in the carpet. Smith was taken to Springfield to await trial.

The investigation in Quincy continued under the auspices of several Secret Service men. It was rumored that the creator of the counterfeit coins was a white man. And counterfeit coins continued to circulate, found in gas meters, the Western Catholic Union and the Fireman's Benevolent Association, which received six or eight bogus quarters as payment for dues.

Despite the continuing investigation, no evidence turned up to implicate Smith, and he was released from federal court on March 13, 1908. That seemed to be the end of the matter until mushroom season rolled around.

In late April 1908, John Heisler, George Long and friends crossed the Mississippi River to Missouri in the area near Crooked Slough to hunt for mushrooms and found instead a complete counterfeiting outfit consisting of dies, molds, stamps and casting materials. The men collected it all and turned it over to authorities. There was no indication of who owned the counterfeiting outfit, and no one was ever charged.


Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill. She is the former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.



"Alleged Counterfeiter to Answer Federal Jury," Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 26, 1908.


"Arrested and Turned Loose," Quincy Daily Herald, Feb. 18, 1908.


"Arrested, Freed and Rearrested," Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 19, 1908.


"Bogus Coin was Found," Quincy Daily Whig, Feb. 18, 1908.


"Counterfeit Coin Plentiful," Quincy Daily Journal, March 6, 1908.


"Do you Carry Counterfeit," Quincy Daily Journal, Feb. 6, 1908.


"Federal Court has Adjourned," Quincy Daily Journal, March 13, 1908.


"He Spieled at Carnival Here," Quincy Daily Journal, July 25, 1907.


"Makers of Bad Money," Quincy Daily Herald, April 20, 1908.


"Outfit Found in the Woods," Quincy Daily Journal, April 20, 1908.


"Was Caught with Goods," Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 26, 1907.


"Wedley Smith if Bound Over," Quincy Daily Journal, Feb. 26, 1908.


"Wedley Smith Rearrested," Quincy Daily Journal, Feb. 19, 1908.


"White Man Made Coin," Quincy Daily Whig, March 6, 1908.