Tis’ Death to Counterfeit: New England Counterfeiters in NY


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Albany County District Lines courtesy earlyamericancrime.comWhile an ongoing border dispute took place between the governments of New York and Massachusetts, Ichabod Miller eked out a living on his farm in West Stockbridge, Mass. On December 20, 1772, his pastoral life was turned upside down.

Miller was awoken to the commotion of an angry mob at his door. In a moment they had broken in the door and he faced the business end of a loaded musket. He was accused of counterfeiting. This crime could be heart stopping. If proven, the sentence was death.

Counterfeiting was fairly prevalent in the colonies at this time. It was relatively easy to do, it was extremely profitable, hard to discover, and even harder to prosecute.

unk hangingA 1771 a batch of New York paper money was so extensively counterfeited that officials proposed printing an illustration of a hanging on all printed money. The plan was never carried out, but they hoped the scene of a man hanging from the gallows would have profound impact.

In addition to deadly prosecutions, officials devised ever more sophisticated methods to thwart counterfeiters. Engravers used complex symbols and marks to make identifying genuine bills from counterfeits easier. Still, the relatively poor quality of printed bills generally meant that the average person was easily duped. As it does today, money often changed hands with little notice of whether it was real or fake.

Counterfeiters made plates and printed whole sheets of fake currency. Once in circulation, it was hard to detect, and harder to trace to a source once detected. When bogus money was reported by the occasional eagle-eyed merchant or tradesman, it was confiscated, leaving the reporting party that much poorer. Even worse, people with fake currency could be prosecuted for merely possessing or innocently exchanging counterfeit money.

The Ichabod Miller Affair

In October 1772 Berkshire County, MA, Sheriff Elijah Williams executed a New York warrant for the arrest of six men from Berkshire County. Williams initially tried to convince Justice Timothy Woodbridge of Stockbridge to validate the warrant, but Woodbridge refused for lack of evidence. Justice John Ashley, from Sheffield, was satisfied with the evidence and endorsed the warrant.

Williams and Ezra Hickok, a deputy, delivered the accused to the New York border. Mark Hopkins and a New York Justice, Theodore Sedgwick, co-signed the warrant. Accordingly, Gill Belcher, Ethan Lewis, Daniel Lewis, J. Adams & J. Caul were turned over to New York officials. A sixth person, while unspecified, was probably Wilholm Hulbert. The men were tried in New Canaan, NY, and confined in Albany County jail.

albany county jail Later, a separate warrant was issued by William B. Whiting, a justice from Albany County, for John Wall Lovey of Great Barrington. He was implicated by Daniel Lewis  – one of the men previously arrested. Ezra Fellows, Wheaton Hicks and Michael Hollenbeck, all Berkshire County officials, delivered Lovey to Albany County.

Daniel Lewis also gave testimony against Gil Belcher and Ethan Lewis, saying they had counterfeited four or five shilling notes and Spanish coins. In the end, Belcher, Hulbert, and Lovey were sentenced to death. (Daniel Lewis was apparently released, but the disposition of the rest of the Berkshire County counterfeiters has not been discovered.)

On December 20, 1772 at two in the morning, Ichabod Miller and his family were awoken by Albany County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Davids knocking down the door.  Miller lived close to the New York-Massachusetts border, but on the Mass. side of the line.  He later testified that in arresting him for counterfeiting, the Deputy Sheriff and his five-man posse smashed open his door with an axe, and shackled and removed him to the jail in Albany, where he contracted smallpox.

At the time, New York asserted jurisdiction over all residents west of the Connecticut River, part of a long-standing dispute between New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts (and what would become Vermont). During examination by the King’s Attorney, Ichabod Miller invoked Massachusetts’ authority in the case. The King’s Attorney responded: “God Damn your Authority.” The King’s Attorney told Miller he would get a Massachusetts authority to endorse the Miller warrant after the fact.

NY Bill

Miller appealed to Stockbridge Justice Timothy Woodbridge who referred the case to the Massachusetts Legislature. During January 1773, a committee was appointed by that body to investigate and report their findings to the Governor.

Miller’s raising the issue of jurisdiction was an unexpected gift for others who were arrested by the Albany County posse. Several of them followed his example and appealed for relief from the Massachusetts Legislature, arguing that they too had never been examined by Massachusetts justice.

The Fate of Counterfeiters

While the battle over jurisdiction stalled in the Massachusetts Legislature, officials seem to have redoubled their efforts against New England counterfeiters.

Wilholm Hulbert, already confined in the Albany jail, confessed his crime and implicated others. Having already had previous convictions, Dr. John Smith and Phineas Granger of Connecticut were easy to identify – they had had their right ears cut off (cropt) and their foreheads branded with the letter C.

Others implicated by Hulbert were Thomas Smith, Dr. Joseph Bill (also known as Packer), James Sutton, Jock’ Mehonm (possibly Jehoiaikim Mtohksin, a Stockbridge Indian), Abner Burrows (of Hartford, CT), Lewis Lett, and Colonel Jeremiah and Stephen Hogeboom, merchants from Claverack, NY. All were accused of making and passing counterfeit bills; Dr. Bill was named the engraver.

After trail and conviction, Wilholm Hulbert (who had turned state’s evidence), Gil Belcher, and Ethan Lewis were each condemned to death. Hulbert’s cooperation saved him from the hangman’s noose, but the sentences of the others stood.

In a letter to the Massachusetts Governor, Belcher admitted that his crimes took place in Great Barrington and he begged the Massachusetts governor to “interpose in his behalf.” Belcher stated, “We ware taken out of our town,” Belcher stated “hawled away like oxsn to the slaughter [and] have a great desire to die in our land… [rather than] in the lands… [of] the Dutch.” Massachusetts officials eventually responded by requesting “the poor miserable… creatures… be treated with tenderness, compassion and justice.”

Before his execution, John Smith confessed that he was previously convicted of counterfeiting, was sentenced “to be cropt and branded,” but had escaped from the Hartford jail and joined Daniel Lewis in “dollar making.” He admitted that he had a counterfeit bill at Ichabod Miller’s house, but said he never exchanged it. His last words were said to have been: “Alas! You may think… there is no danger, bread eaten in deceit is pleasant, but know ye for all these things God will bring thee unto judgment.”

Gilbert Belcher was reported to have barricaded himself in the Albany jail with gunpowder, but was subdued and hung the next day. It is said that his dying words were: “No gain afforded me so much pleasure as that which I acquired by illicit means.”

Broadside of the confession of John Wall Lovey printed in 1773John Wall Lovey was the last of the Berkshire County counterfeiters to hang. With his dying breath he is said to have forgave Daniel Lewis and his prosecutors, praying God pardon his sins.

The Woodbridge Reprisal

In February 1773, the committee of the Massachusetts Legislature investigating the arrests of the counterfeiters by New York authorities, determined that Sheffield Justice John Ashley improperly issued the original warrant. The Legislature sanctioned only Berkshire County Sherriff Elijah Williams however, which infuriated Stockbridge Justice Timothy Woodbridge, who had refused to validate the original warrant citing a lack of evidence.

As payback, Justice Woodbridge issued a trespass warrant for the Albany posse that had originally arrested Ichabod Miller. The subjects of the Woodbridge warrant were Deputy Sherriff Daniel Davids, Joshua Root, Israel Spencer, Icabod Squire Jr., Abajiah Root and Joshua Whitney. These men all lived near the border in Albany County (in the gore, as an area improperly left out of surveys is called). Apparently, they were served the warrant, each posted bail to appear later, and the case was referred to a grand jury in Pittsfield.

On March 9, 1773, the Pittsfield Inferior Court found against the Albany Posse and in favor of Ichabod Miller. The finding was that the posse assaulted, beat, wounded and abused Miller for a period of three weeks. He was awarded 150 pounds in damages, but the case was continued. On August 17, the court specified that only defendants Joshua Root, Icabod Squire Jr. and Abajiah Root were responsible for the damages, but again the case was continued.

A separate complaint filed by Miller against Joshua and Abajiah Root was presented in Inferior Court on March 1, 1774 and the jury awarded Miller an additional 45 pounds plus costs. Miller walked away empty handed again however, as the award was appealed to the Supreme Court in Northampton, MA.

On August 16, 1774, the court in Great Barrington was closed by an angry mob, and similar events closed other Massachusetts courts. The next day, (August 17, before the Pittsfield court was closed), Miller’s original award for 150 pounds was held over yet again.  Unfortunately for Miller, Massachusetts courts remained closed until the Revolutionary War ended seven years later.

Although Miller served in the Berkshire County militia during 1777, it apparently didn’t advance his case. The war ended and the courts reopened, but there is no indication that Miller’s claims were ever addressed.  In 1790, Henry Van Schaack foreclosed on Miller’s mortgage and he lost his farm and moved on to obscurity.

A version of this article was previously published in Berkshire Genealogist.

Photos, from above: Albany County District Lines, courtesy earlyamericancrime.com; Unknown hanging at Albany County jail courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology; NY five pound note showing designs that made it harder to duplicate; and Broadside of the confession of John Wall Lovey, printed in 1773.

6 thoughts on “Tis’ Death to Counterfeit: New England Counterfeiters in NY

  1. Michael Mauro DeBonis

    This was an excellent article. It brings to mind not only legal questions regarding territorial jurisdictions, but is also puts under scrutiny law, as it applies to disputed geographic areas. The colonies involved should have consulted Crown authorities, perhaps. But these same issues of territorial legal disputes would plague the US gov’t., as well…state’s rights issues during the pre-Civil War and Civil Eras. Civil right’s issues as well are certainly brought to attention here and valid Federal agencies who were allowed to traverse state borders to enact legally valid arrests…such as the US Postal Police and the US Secret Service. Other Federal law-enforcement agencies were created just for these specific reasons (the US Marshals and the FBI) to limit and curtail the abusive and controversial actions of the Pinkerton Detective Agency (post-Civil War period-early 20th century)…
    You would think that with a fully-formed and legally comprehensive governing document like the US Constitution on hand, many of these legal issues would have been put to rest, after the British departure from the Thirteen Colonies, in 1783. But our nation was brand new and its laws and its history were both untested. I wonder if the NY-Mass. border dispute was resolved at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, or before. This was a very good read.

    Best,
    M. DeBonis.

    Reply
  2. Geoffrey A. Hickok

    I was pleased to see that by 5th GGF, Ezra Hickok, Jr. of Sheffield, MA as a Sheriff’s Deputy in 1772 helped bring to justice some of these criminals.

    Reply
    1. Brian BarrettBrian S. Barrett

      Fellows to Wayne at Ticonderoga Sheffield 20th April 1777

      Your ancestor is also mentioned in the following letter:
      Gen John Fellows to Col Anthony Wayne at Ticonderoga Sheffield 20th April 1777
      Sir,

      Last evening I was informed that Brigadier General Patterson who was on his way to Ticonderoga had communicated in a letter from Bennington to this county the following inteligence (viz) that he had examined a noted Tory who said that a post had been sent express from St Johns in Canada to the Tories there informing them that the enemy were at Isle Au Noix on their way for Ticonderoga with all their force; this inteligence was fully credited by Gen Paterson who thought advisable to have part of the militia from this county immediately ordere’d for Ticonderoga. However was of the opinion that the inteligence was not sufficient to warrant my proceeding to this measure.

      In the meantime have given orders that one-half of the militia in this county hold themselves in immediate readyness to march at a minutes warning in case of an alarm. Also have sent Capt Ezra Heicock the bearer express to you for more particular acct of the matter by whome I desire some further inteligence as well as your commands which shall be immediately comply’d with.

      By your most obt most humble servant

      John Fellows B. G. of the Militia of the county of Berkshire

      Reply
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