For a decade, from 1938 to 1948, the United States Secret Service conducted one of its most intensive searches for a counterfeiter. The elusive fraudster’s funny money appeared throughout New York City and across the United States but was concentrated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a small area centered on Broadway and 96th Street. Although the counterfeiter passed off thousands of bills in a relatively small area over a long time frame, the authorities could not catch the unknown subject. To make matters more embarrassing for the feds, the secretive mastermind who kept them at bay—the man they called Old 880 after his case file number—was counterfeiting one dollar bills. Poorly.
The quality of the counterfeit dollar bills was remarkably bad. The paper was low quality, the image of Washington lacked definition (the left eye, for example, was a black spot), the text was illegible, and the name beneath the portrait was misspelled as Wahsington. To add insult to insult after the injury, as time passed, the craftsmanship of the bills actually declined as the counterfeiter tried, without skill, to improve his counterfeit money.
Even a precursory examination would identify an old 880 bill as fake; however, people seemed to accept the bills and pass them to other innocent people readily. The Secret Service did get hundreds of calls from banks, though, as the better-trained staff recognized the fraudulent currency easily. Investigation of the individual depositors provided no clues, as none of them could isolate a transaction where they received a counterfeit buck.
By 1948, the Secret Service had thousands of fake bills from Old 880 and frustration from years of futility in seeking the perpetrator. They estimated that Old 880 was passing one or two fake bills per day, hardly enough to make crime pay well. If Old 880 had gotten greedy and tried to pass a larger number of bills at one time, in one place, the feds could have pounced or could have investigated the single event. But the slow and steady trickle of phony currency continued until ill luck struck the counterfeiter.
A group of young boys found a number of counterfeit bills and a set of printing plates in a vacant lot. A father of one boy discovered the boys playing poker using the “stage money” (as they thought it was) and recognized it for what it was. He contacted authorities, who searched the vacant lot and discovered that the debris among which the boys found the money came from a tenement house next to the vacant lot. While fighting a fire in one of the units in the tenement, firefighters had tossed the debris out of the window of the apartment. The apartment of Edward Mueller, the nefarious Old 880.
Whatever the Secret Service expected to find in their criminal, counterfeiting mastermind—or at least in the man who exasperated them for so long—they got Edward Mueller, a 73-year-old junkman. A former apartment superintendent, Mueller prided himself on his self-reliance, and when his junk collecting didn’t cover the small necessities of his life, he began counterfeiting the one dollar bills on a small, hand-driven press in his kitchen. The 5’3” bald and toothless Mueller admitted his misdeeds. They were only one dollar bills, he said with a smile.
The Secret Service listened to the diminutive codger’s story—of how he photographed a dollar bill in 1938 with a studio camera, made his zinc plates, and retouched them by hand—and frankly didn’t think the old fellow capable of the counterfeiting. Although Mueller tried to ascribe the manufacture of the bills on one Henry Reynolds, investigations and surveillance finally led the Secret Service to concede that Edward Mueller acted alone.
Edward Mueller was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison for counterfeiting and was paroled after four months. Additionally, he had to pay a stiff fine for his work: a real dollar.
Mueller’s story was recounted in the 1950 film Mr. 880. The amount of money he received for rights to his story matched or exceeded the total of money he counterfeited in the decade of his criminal enterprise.
IMDB entry for Mr. 880
McKelway, St. Clair, “Old 880.” In The Fine Art of Swindling, edited by Walter B. Gibson. Grossett & Dunlop 1966.