The Green Goods Scam of the 19th Century

The green goods scam was a fraudulent scheme that involved persuading victims to turn over thousands of dollars in genuine bills that would then be returned to the victims double their value in counterfeit bills. The scam was run by a gang of sharpers, called “green goods men.” They make millions of dollars using denominations of bills that ranged from $2 to as high as $50 or sometimes even $100.00.

Generally, the green goods scam involved American victims responding to flyers circulated throughout the countryside. For instance, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a discovery of a box revealed 8,000 envelopes addressed to potential victims by green goods men. The discovery was made by Anthony Comstock, a man who upheld Victorian morality with his anti-vice activism, worked as the United States Postal Inspector, and served as secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He noted that each envelope confiscated contained “three green goods circulars, [totaling] 24,000 circulars. … [and that] besides the circulars the box contained a lot of private account books and the ‘steering book’ of the green goods men … [that] showed in detail just how much was got from each victim.”[1]

Anthony Comstock - green goods scam

Anthony Comstock. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The green goods scam began when a list of names was sent to unethical postmasters. They then provided addresses of the most gullible people in their area and these names were used over and over in various swindles. Of the scam the Independent Record in Helena, Montana stated:

“It’s a curious fact that the man who has been fooled once is the easiest man to fool again. The green goods man would work his list out, and then turn it over to the gold watch swindler who would cheat the same people once more, and then give the names to some other sort of shark. These long lists used to sell for a dollar a name from one swindler to another.”[2]

The green goods men were highly successful in their swindles because they often claimed that the currency for sale was being made from authentic stolen engraving plates, and that the counterfeit currency they were making was undetectable. The targeted victims were often people living outside major cities who were enticed by the idea that they could double their money. Moreover, many of the potential victims were willing to travel to the scammers locations to complete the illegal transactions.

Once there, the “steerer” would show the victim a large amount of genuine currency that was claimed to be counterfeit. This was then placed in a bag, satchel, or box in front of the victims and offered to them at at a large discount, or they negotiated a special price for it. After doing so, another accomplice, called a “ringer,” would switch the currency and victims would leave unaware of the switch. Victims were told not to open the bag until they got home and when they did they would find that they had been swindled because what they had in their possession was sawdust, a brick, or paper.

The same year that Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, declared bankruptcy was the same year that a green goods scam was operated out of Perth Amboy in New Jersey. The 1894 scam was perpetrated by a well-known New York scammer, burglar, and bank robber, Edward “Ned” Lyons. He had been in jail several times and was a known pickpocket. In addition, this Irish-born criminal served a three-year stint for breaking into a store in South Windham, Connecticut, and another three years for stealing a safe from a store in Palmer, Massachusetts.

Edward “Ned” Lyons. Author’s collection.

Supposedly, in a single week, Lyons and his accomplices fleeced twenty-five victims in their green goods scams. To accomplish the fraud victims were enticed to visit Lyons. When they arrived they were immediately met at the train station by a hack owned by his gang. Victims were then driven in a roundabout way to the roadhouse where the exchange was to take place and this circuitous route made it difficult for victims to find the place again once they realized they had been swindled.

At the roadhouse victims were greeted by the gang’s leader. They were then taken to a room where bills were offered in varying denominations by the steerer. Other details as to how Lyons operated his scam were described in an article that appeared in the New York Sun in October of 1894:

“When the victim has decided to buy the goods and has named the amount he wishes to buy and the denominations in which he wants the bills, the packages of good money are placed in a japanned box, about twelves inches long, eight inches wide, and three inches deep, and locked [up] … In the mean time a duplicate box is prepared in which are placed packages of good bills which have been purchased. These packages of paper are faced on top by good bills. About this time the victim is asked to have a drink … and in the meantime [the victim has been cautioned] … not to open the box until he reaches home, and by no means not to talk to any one about the deal. The box is placed in the clothes press for safe keeping, and is apparently at all times in full view of the victim. While the [victim] is drinking, however, the change of boxes is made. When he is ready to leave [he is given] … the box which contains only packages of green paper. A key, which does not fit the lock of the box is given him. He is at once taken down stairs and sent away in the carriage owned by the gang, and driven by one of the members. …  Little time is given to the guy to decide whether he will buy green goods or not. From the time he arrives at the house until he leaves it is only from fifteen to twenty minutes.”[3]

Besides Lyons, another notorious green goods scammer was Edward Parmalee Jones. Newspapers described him as a thin lanky man weighing about 150 pounds, being 6 feet 6 inches tall, and sporting blonde hair and a light mustache. His gang, the Paramlee gang, took their title from his middle name and were active in the New York area in the late 1880s and 1890s. It was reported of Jones in 1891:

“Mr. Jones himself recently opened an office in Jersey City, where he received mail under 250 aliases. He had one or two young men with him, but his most trusted companions were a bull dog with an almost infinite jaw and a big navy revolver. When he got a ‘hay-seed’ into the den he frightened every dollar out of his clothes.”[4]

Edward Parmalee Jones. Author’s collection.

Besides the leader and gang members, the green goods scam often involved the help of local citizens paid extra for their participation. For instance, the roadhouse proprietor was paid by the green goods men to carry on the scam at his location. There were also go-betweens used to purchase stamps, printers had to be paid to print circulars, and telegraph operators charged a higher rate for a green goods man to send his message than regular citizens. Police officers were also paid to frighten away victims that returned complaining. There were also high fares charged by hack drivers to take victims to and from the roadhouses. In fact, it was reported of these drivers:

“[They] are frequently ‘in cahoots’ with the green goods men, and when the green goods business is dull, as it sometimes is, the latter occasionally turn to the horse business for relief. To their neighbors they are known by ordinary names, and in some cases probably their own, but among themselves they are called by various picturesque titled, such as ‘Paddy the Pig,’ ‘George the Coon,’ ‘Sam Sly,’ ‘Easy Jack,’ ‘Dutch Jake,’ ‘Fizz Mike,’ ‘Pretty Brooks,’ ‘Poodle Murphy,’ ‘Handsome Frank’ and the like, all of which are undoubtedly derived from some feature or characteristic of the persons so called. Sometimes they do business nominally as diamond merchants, commission merchants, and as agents of one kind or another.”[5]

The green goods scam was perpetrated all over the American countryside in the nineteenth century. For instance, a hotel porter, Morris Hottenstein, at the Pacific House in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, related how the green goods men carried out their scam at his hotel. He stated that local railroad men knew of hotel’s reputation and warned potential victims against staying there because it was “crooked.” Hottenstein also stated:

“‘Green goods men’ had been stopping at the Pacific House, to his knowledge ever since the World’s Fair in 1893 … and [victims] were fleeced out of their cash by sharpers. … They were called ‘suckers’ by the slick individuals who ‘roped them in.’ They thought they were getting counterfeit money, which was represented to be so perfect that nobody could tell it from the genuine article. In reality they got nothing.”[6]

If a potential victim was unwilling or unable to travel to the green goods scam site sometimes an “express act” was committed. This was where the counterfeit money was shipped to the person by express mail. When received, the victim discovered the money missing and complained to the “turner” who informed them that someone at the express office must have made the switch because he had faithfully sent the money.

Newspapers also printed many examples of how people were scammed and how easily gangs got away with such crimes. One such story happened in New York City in the early 1890s and showed how victims were fleeced and handily they were deceived more than once. The article appeared in the Topeka State Journal in January of 1891:

“[T]hree men from Havre de Grace had pooled their resources; had come up to this city, and had been steered into the den of the green-goods men. They sat on one side of the table and the operator [or steerer] on the other. The goods were exhibited; the bargain made, and the money planked down. The operator ran it through rapidly. He paused at a twenty dollar bill. ‘Where’d you get that,’ he said, ‘From the bank at Havre de Grace,’ [the victim] replied. ‘Well, it’s not good,’ said the operator, throwing it upon the floor, ‘I made it myself.’ He actually made one of the men go out and pawn his watch for the twenty dollars.

When the [three men returned to] … Havre de Grace they opened the bag supposed to contain green-goods with great secrecy and ceremony. It held a coupling pin and some cotton waste such as is used to clean locomotives. The men were furious. They wrote to the green-goods men and received a courteous reply, suggesting that railroad men must have rifled the bag on the road. … More correspondence ensued and finally the three gulls came up to New York again and were swindled by the same gang that had worked them before.”[7]

The amount obtained from such swindles was exceedingly high. Some gangs made anywhere from a million dollars to five million annually. For instance, the Akron Daily Democrat reported that in 1893 one gang made $40,185 between mid-April and the end of May. The paper noted that “George Victor of Mitchell, Ont., was ‘roped’ by French and Oliver, who enriched themselves by $300 in the operation. The money was divided as follows: ‘Joint’ (place of operation), $15; ‘steerer,’ $15; ‘outlook,’ $10. This left $260, of which $155 went to the boss of the gang and $105 to the ‘ropers.’”[8]

Part of the reason for the green goods men success was that victims usually knew it was illegal to purchase counterfeit currency. If they reported the crime, they knew they could be arrested. Therefore, victims were usually unwilling to report their losses to police. This then helped men like Lyons and Jones to continue perpetrating their crimes without fear of retribution from victims and also without fear of police intervention, such as from officers like New York’s Inspector Thomas Byrnes.

Inspector Thomas Byrnes in 1886. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As knowledge increased about how the green goods scams worked, newspapers ramped up their coverage. Yet, despite wide reporting on these swindles, victims continued to be taken in by the scam. This caused critics to be unsympathetic towards the victims and it also resulted in the Akron Daily Democrat noting:

“He who passes it by is confessedly hebetudinous. Besides, it has permeated the general intelligence that perhaps the swindled is no honester than the swindler – if indeed he be as honest.”[9]

References:

  • [1] Akron Daily Democrat, “The Green Goods Game,” May 27, 1893, p. 5.
  • [2] The Independent-Record, “The Decline of Bunco,” January 25, 1891, p. 12.
  • [3] The Sun, “In a Green Goods Lair,” October 9, 1894, p. 2.
  • [4] The Independent-Record, p. 12.
  • [5] Akron Daily Democrat, p. 5.
  • [6] The Allentown Leader, “Green Goods Joint,” March 24, 1897, p. 1.
  • [7] The Independent-Record, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.

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