By Ray Schultz
In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” the New York Times reported a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily ‘made the recipients’… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”
Some of these doubtless came from the City Novelty Co. of Philadelphia, established in 1860. At the height of the Depression in 1873, it mailed a brochure in a hand-written envelope. “The Crisis that has so suddenly burst upon the Country and so rapidly extended to every branch of Business, has particularly affected manufacturers of Jewlery, and we find ourselves carrying a very etxensive stock of FINE GOODS for LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WEAR, And have determined to dispose of our Stock on the following plan, which is PERFECTLY LEGITIMATE, AND NOT A LOTTERY.”
And the plan? “We do not sell any tickets to tell you what article you can have for a dollar, but we sell you a box of very extra quality of Writing Pens, twenty-four in a box, for twenty-five cents, and warrant them to give entire satisfaction; will not corrode—and are adapted to any hand that can hold a pen. In this box we put a sealed envelope, that has in it a slip of paper with some one of the above articles named on it, which you can have if you desire it, by paying one dollar.
“We also sell the Ladies’ Casket for fifty cents, which contains the following articles, (whih are worth separately at retail $1.15) viz: four papers (100) of Cole’s Celebrated Duplex Silver Spring Steel Needles, Nos. 5 to 10, (Sharps); one Patent Button-Hole Cutter, twelve Yosemite Pens, one Silver Plated Pen Holder. The Casket opens like a book, with gold edges and clasp. In this Casket you will find two envelopes, each contaning a slip of paper, naming some article in this list which you can have, if you desire it, upon paying one dollar.”
Anthony Comstock had overlooked the City Novelty Company, but there were bigger bigger frauds being perpetrated. One was the so-called Green Goods scam. Having divined that most people were as dishonest as they were, rogues like Ed Parmalee and Tony Martin prospered by sending letters like this one:
“Dear Sir: — If you have no conscientious scruples regarding how men get money, I write to say that I am in a position to supply you with an ‘article’ that — for commercial purposes — is as good as gold.”
If the reader was too dense to grasp what he was being offered, the attached clipping, looking like it came right out of a New York newspaper, would set him straight:
“A COUNTERFEITER GOES FREE”
“The country flooded with $2,000,000,000 of counterfeit money in the past year, and pronounced by Government experts to be as good as the genuine greenback.”
Yes, counterfeit money. Most people got little mail of any kind, let alone letters from a stranger inviting them to commit a crime, but the note stated a truth obvious to many in that age of robber barons: “People are growing rich around you every day (no one knows why), why not you?
Another wrote, “My Dear Sir: I am desirous of obtaining a good shrewd agent in your locality to handle my ‘goods.’ If you have been unsuccessful in your business, I can supply you with goods with which you can pay off all your debts and start free and clear again. You can purchase mortgages, etc.”
Of course, most green-goods operators apologized for the intrusion. One said, “This communication may be somewhat startling or probably unwelcome. If so, I trust you will be good enough to destroy the same as no harm or insult is intended.”
The actual sale took place in two stages. If he responded, the would-be millionaire would be sent a free sample — usually a genuine $1 bill. After examining and spending it, he would send a sum of money for 10 times that amount in counterfeit notes (there was a sliding scale through which the customer received a better percentage the more he paid). On the happy day that his order arrived C.O.D., he would open the box to find not the greenbacks he had ordered, but sawdust or green paper.
Few victims griped because they feared “the odium that is attached to their being willing to be a party to purchasing and putting into circulation counterfeit money,” according to the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And they needn’t have expected any sympathy from Comstock. “Any person who sends money for counterfeit money should lose every cent of it,” he wrote.
Some green-goods artists ran industrial-strength enterprises (one group had free run of Jersey City city hall). Others operated out of saloons on Hudson Street in New York City, many of which had private mail boxes. They would come in for a beer and the mail, and quietly slip out if they saw anyone asking questions.
As for printing, some lottery men used processes that allowed them to mimic handwriting or typewriting. In 1883, a tip led Comstock to the back room of Eugene Marvin’s print shop on Eighth Ave., where he found two big cylinder presses, cutting and numbering machines, 875,000 green-goods circulars and phony Western Union telegraph blanks.
In 1890, Congress passed a law making it illegal not only to offer green goods by mail, but also to order them. (Ditto for “green articles,” “green coin,” “United States goods” and “green cigars”.) So the perpetrators returned to the practice they’d followed earlier: Conducting the swindle in person.
Invited to New York or to a smaller town (after the initial direct mail letter, all communications would be by telegraph), the mark would be plied with food and liquor by his hosts, and the party would retire to a hotel room to finalize the deal. Then one of two things would happen. In the first, men posing as police would barge in and threaten to arrest everyone for counterfeiting; the only way out would be for the one man with actual legal tender in his pocket to bribe the officers. In the second, the swindlers would switch a suitcase filled with cash for one containing sawdust. As one writer put it, the victim would find himself alone in the room, his money gone, the idea slowly dawning on him of just what a fool he had been.
Occasionally, this would backfire. Tony Martin, known as the Prince of Green-Goods Men, was shot to death by an outraged rube from whom he had euchred $650. Comstock attended the funeral, hoping to catch Martin’s Comstock. Failing that, he used the occasion to denounce the dead man to a reporter. “The woman he lived with was another man’s wife,” he said. “And he was a confirmed opium fiend.”