Monday, October 7, 2019

King of the Koniackers

Putting some meat on the biography of an Indiana
gunsmith, I find Joseph Wood on the 1860 census for Clark County, Indiana. He's listed as "gunsmith" born around 1830 in Ohio.

"That's odd," I think. "Looks like he's living in one big house, with a bunch of other guys." I look at the top of the census page and see that it IS a big house: the Indiana State Penitentiary at Jeffersonville.

In the census column for "Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict," Joseph Wood was noted as being locked up for "Passing Counterfeit Money."


I dug a little deeper. "Gunsmith Joseph Wood" was one of the many aliases for counterfeiter John "Pete" McCartney (1829-1890), who also went by the names of Charles Lang, Mr. Ward, Mr. Carter, "Captain Judd," and "Professor Joseph Woods."

Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, wrote that Pete McCartney “at different times practiced medicine, extracted teeth, served as a peddler, as a drummer or commercial traveler, delivered public lectures [on “how to detect counterfeit bills," as “Professor Joseph Woods”], acted as an agent of the Secret Service and a Treasury expert, represented a gentleman of elegant leisure, an artist, a cattle or mule drover, a stableman, or, in fact, any character that might elude the watchfulness of detective authorities.”

Pete was something of an escape artist, and it seemed that whenever he fell into the hands of the authorities, they could never hold him for long. After being arrested for passing bogus bills at a Union Army camp during the Civil War, he was being transported to a federal prison in Washington. Shackled by hands and feet, he "seized a favorable moment" and threw himself off the back of the train (breaking two ribs).

He then made his way from there to Illinois, where he "became an operating dentist with a prominent gentleman at Springfield, and devoted himself to his congenial and accomplished wife" (Martha Ackerman, whom he married 1852 in Indianapolis, herself the "daughter of an old German counterfeiter, and who, when but a girl of eleven, being very bright and skillful, had been engaged in printing counterfeits in her father's house, under his paternal directions"). Pete was definitely among his people.

Detective Allan Pinkerton was enamored with McCartney. Pinkerton gave nearly three dozen pages of his *own* biography ("Thirty Years a Detective")
to the life of Pete McCartney, calling him "a prince among counterfeiters" and "King of the Koniackers" (an idiom for "coin hackers" or "counterfeiter). Even after 35 pages, Pinkerton wrote: “Limited space prevents me from minutely tracing the exciting and romantic career of this wonderful man,” and described McCartney as a “patient and artistic genius."

When McCartney was interviewed in December 1870 by a newspaper correspondent in Springfield, Illinois, the reporter noted: "It is not every day that our jail is graced with the presence of so distinguished a criminal."

When the reporter asked him how he escaped from a certain jail earlier in 1866, Pete replied, "I don't want to answer that question, but I will say this (with a peculiar smile)... I got out."

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