Friday, March 4, 2011

Ben Tarnoff

Ben Tarnoff is the author of Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters. He has worked at Lapham's Quarterly and graduated from Harvard in 2007.

From a Q & A at his website:

Q: Can you explain the significance of the title Moneymakers?

A: “Moneymaker” was the colonial word for counterfeiter. When Owen Sullivan, the first counterfeiter profiled in my book, gets into a drunken fight with his wife in Boston in 1749, she calls him a “forty-thousand-pound moneymaker.” The neighbors overhear this remark and tell the police, who discover fake bills and printing materials at Sullivan’s house and arrest him. I liked the word “moneymaker” because it’s so literal: of all the ways to acquire money, only “moneymaking” involved actually manufacturing it. A disgruntled silversmith could disappear for a week and return richer than the city’s wealthiest merchant. Getting rich quick inspired as much awe and envy back then as it does today. For those riches to be fabricated by hand, and not earned the old-fashioned way, made counterfeiting seem like magic. It’s easy to see why counterfeiters became the outlaw celebrities of their day. They embodied the enduring fantasy of instant wealth. Their fortunes were, in every sense, self-made.

Q: What initially drew you to the topic of counterfeiting?

A: When I started reading about the subject, I became fascinated with the stories of the individual counterfeiters. Very few began as professional criminals. Most started out as craftsmen: silversmiths or engravers, usually. Creating a plate for printing counterfeit bills required tremendous dexterity. The success of an entire operation essentially rested on one pair of hands. So counterfeiters tended to be talented artists—but they were also aggressively entrepreneurial. They needed to think on several levels: quality of the craftsmanship wasn’t the only factor determining the success of a counterfeiting enterprise. There was the sale of the notes themselves, whether to regional distributors or to gangs of “passers.” There was the geographical question of which communities to target. Perhaps most importantly, counterfeiters...[read on]
Read an excerpt from Moneymakers, and learn more about the book and author at Ben Tarnoff's website.

The Page 99 Test: Moneymakers.

Writers Read: Ben Tarnoff.

--Marshal Zeringue