American historian Stephen Mihm has done something strange. He has turned his NYU dissertation on the history of 19th century American banking and counterfeiting into a book (A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of America, 2007) that normal people can read. Or could read. Virtually no one without a specialized interest will bother. It’s about currency and banking. I mentioned that, right? Is anyone still reading this post?
Mihm’s book is a mix of narrative and social history. The criminal element allows him to tell some good stories. Who knew that the border area between Vermont and Canada, centered on Dunham, Quebec, was once a criminal refuge, full of counterfeiters and horse thieves? A counterfeiter named Stephen Burroughs lived there, and was for a time the most notorious criminal in America, having written a best-selling memoir about his exploits, a sort of inverted version of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Burroughs would send mocking letters to banks that failed, pointing out that his fake currency was now worth more than their real currency. Hilarious.
Another story, completely preposterous: “Several Counterfeiters – described by one chronicler as a ‘gang of desperadoes and ghouls’ – plotted to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body and hold it hostage in exchange for the release of Boyd.” The initial plan was to steal Lincoln’s body on July 4, 1876, the centennial. “That plan went awry, but was revived that fall, and almost succeeded: two men broke into the crypt, lifted the lid of the sarcophagus, and were in the process of lifting the coffin when Secret Service agents, who had gotten wind of the plot, broke up the proceedings.” (p. 366)
Mihm attributes the readability of his prose to his work as a journalist for The New York Times Magazine, which also allows him to namedrop Michael Pollan and Stephen Dubner in his acknowledgements. I believe him – his book has, for example, as clear an account as I’ve ever read of the struggle between Andrew Jackson and Nicholas Biddle over the National Bank. Oh good, you’re thinking, I was looking for that. The description of the era of “wildcat banking” is also very good. Maybe I should confess here that with this book I am actually a Professional Reader. Although anyone else who enjoys historical non-fiction could read this book with pleasure, I doubt many normal readers will be interested enough to bother, even with the true crime angle. If Mihm’s next book is on a topic of more, let’s say, general interest, I predict it will be worth your time.
One kind of reader* who should take a look: If you are writing a historical novel set in the early to mid 19th century, there’s a lot of good untapped material to steal here. Shady banks, shady publishers, police raids, con men, threats against witnesses.** Some of the stories, suitably mangled, would also make a good screenplay. Get Daniel Day-Lewis to star. Make, depending upon one’s talent, heavy and obvious or witty and subtle satirical points about capitalism.
* A second kind: fans of or specialists in Herman Melville’s novel The Confidence Man need to add Chapter 5, at least, to their bibliographies.
** The source of the vocabulary word absquatulate, to remove oneself – “The thug advised the witness to absquatulate to another state before the trial began, or else.”