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Fractional High Jinks: Fakers Knocked Out 50-Cent Note
By Fred Reed, Coins Magazine
June 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The Civil War era and the decade that followed Appomattox was the “high cotton” era of paper money counterfeiting in this nation.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments were inept in controlling this scourge, although the U.S. Secret Service had been created precisely for that purpose.

Even fractional paper bills that the government circulated during suspension of specie payments were subject to the predations of these “Midnight Pressmen.”

The relatively high-denomination 50-cent Fractional Currency was an especially prime target, and new 50-cent bills were turned out repeatedly as successive issues were vitiated by the koniackers.

The Lincoln 50-cent bills (Fr. 1374) were no exception. They were withdrawn and replaced after only several months in circulation by a new issue with a portrait of Edwin M. Stanton.

The very-high-grade counterfeit shown here was one of the felonious productions that doomed the Lincoln bill to its short life.

In 1869, with abundant fakes circulating of virtually all bills in the nation’s arsenal, the U.S. Treasury turned out a new series of “Rainbow” Treasury Notes, and the so-called Fourth Issue Fractional Currency with new anti-counterfeiting measures calculated to turn the tide on the fakers.

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The principal improvement to the 50-cent note was the introduction into its paper of embedded red fibers.

In its currency changeover, on the highest denomination fractional bills Treasury honored the martyred 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The new bills sported an excellent engraving of Lincoln by Treasury contractor Charles Burt, who had previously engraved the image of the “Great Emancipator” that had graced the nation’s $10 Greenbacks.

According to my mentor and friend Lloyd Ostendorf, who a half century ago created the classification system still in use to catalog Lincoln photographs: “The Lincoln likeness on the U.S. Fractional Currency note is taken from the sketch from life and photographs [Ostendorf 97-99] made by and for Frank (Francis) Carpenter, the artist who spent six months in the White House in 1864 and painted the [First Reading of the] Emancipation Proclamation canvas.

“His Lincoln sketch was copied by the engraver [Frederick] Halpin (recently returned from the South where he had engraved Confederate notes and stamps for the firm of Archer & Daly) and prints were put out and sold. In turn the federal currency note portrait copied the Carpenter/Halpin likeness of Lincoln and reversed it to fit the note better.”

This new Lincoln currency portrait was also expected to provide additional security for the new 50-cent notes when they were introduced in fall 1869.

In point of fact, however, even this new level of security was not foolproof. As the feds stepped up their game, the koniackers also upped their efforts in an infernal chess match.

The Lincoln note was first issued in July 1869, but its issue was suspended in December 1869 after only 19,152,000 notes (only 12 percent of the total 50-cent Fourth Issue circulation) had been released.

This issue was so short-lived because a large quantity of good counterfeit notes began to circulate shortly after the note appeared.

Specialists in this field, such as collectors Art Paradis and David Treter, with whom I’ve corresponded extensively, recognize five different counterfeits of the Lincoln 50-cent note.

Shown is a very high-grade example of one of the least successful of the five sub rosa varieties. These specialists refer to this fake as CFT 1374-B. I have several examples of this variety. It is distinguished by apparently hand-drawn facsimiles of the red paper fibers, botched barley leaf in the top left corner on face and a blob star in the panel on the back.

The example shown was graded Very Choice CU and purchased from a dealer for $500 about six years ago.

The most successful faker of these Lincoln notes was the “Prince of Counterfeiters” “Long Tom” Ballard, but the fake shown here probably emanated from a more mundane source like the mom and pop shop detectives busted in Baltimore in April 1870 cranking out fake 25-cent and 50-cent bills.

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