Mr. 880

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do almost anything. The problem is, sometimes it can be difficult to figure out which way is which.

Take, for instance, the case of Mr. 880. I stumbled over him wandering around Snopes.com, a site devoted to verifying or disproving the truth of urban legends. It fits nicely into our ongoing catalog of criminal cases solved through chance, but what really caught my eye about it is the issues it raises.

In brief, Emerich Juettner, aka Edward Mueller, found himself coming up a few dollars short every now and then. Rather than being a burden on his children, he instead turned to counterfeiting. When he needed a few dollars, he would run them off using a small printing press. The bills were poorly printed and contained significant errors (one set apparently misspelled George Washington’s name under his picture on the bill). Yet, for all the problems, Mueller eluded the Secret Service for a decade. He was only caught because fire fighters tossed a bunch of junk out of a window while fighting a fire. Included in the junk were a number of counterfeit bills which were found by some kids who used them as play money.

It’s a quirky story – and it was even made into a movie a couple of years later starring Edmund Gwenn (best known as Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”) as Mueller and Burt Lancaster as a Secret Service agent searching for him. I’d love to find a copy of the film, even if it does apparently take some significant liberties with the story.

Snopes points out several reasons why Mueller evaded capture for so long.

First, he wasn’t greedy. He only created what he needed to make up the difference between his income and his expenses. As a result, he never stood out as seeming to be living above his means.

Second, he spread the burden around. He never passed more than one bill at any given location. That meant that nobody was seriously damaged. Most counterfeiters hit the same locations multiple times, so are often caught by staking out businesses that have been hit; Mueller avoided all such traps. I’d add a related item to that: since he was operating in Manhattan, he had a huge number of businesses to pass his money at. By not just spreading it around to multiple businesses, but also hitting all types of businesses all over the city, he prevented any attempts to anticipate his actions and set traps at his probable next victims.

Third, he limited his counterfeiting to one dollar bills. Even in the 1940s when a dollar went much further than it does today, in the press of business, nobody really looked at the bills. A $5 or $10 might get some attention; a $20 almost certainly would have, but a single would just go into the cash drawer and the clerk’s attention would move to the next customer. By the time anyone noticed the bogus bill, it would be far to late to figure out who had passed it.

What do I find so fascinating about the case of Mr. 880?

The ethical question: Is it better to do a tiny bit of financial damage to a large number of strangers, or to be an ongoing financial drain on your family? Consider that over the course of his career, Mr. 880 probably passed $5,000-$6,000 in fake funds. In a time where the average salary was (depending on the sources you believe and the year you look at) somewhere between $1,300 and $3,500, Mueller’s shortfall of $600 or so could have been a serious drain on his children’s income. (Social Security, if he was eligible, wouldn’t have helped much – the first payments were made in 1937 as lump sums of up to $58; monthly payments began in 1940 and as best I can tell maxed out at approximately $25.) One could regard Mueller’s approach as his own form of Social Security: 6,000 people paid a $1 lifetime tax to support him. Clearly it’s not a scalable solution, but it could be justified as the right answer in this one case.

The practical question: Could the same approach work today? My suspicion is that it could. Think about it: how closely do you look at your cash? Are you sure you don’t have a counterfeit bill in your wallet right now? (The evidence suggests that counterfeit detection pens are of limited efficacy at best, and may even flag older real bills as fake.) Vending machines that take $1 and $5 bills are common and don’t test bills for validity; fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and other high-volume retail outlets don’t have time to test bills. You probably could get away with passing that same $40-$50 a month in home-brewed dollars if you followed Mr. Mueller’s precepts.

That said, though, why bother? Spreading the hit around will probably wind up costing you more in gas or transit fares than it gains you. Scaling up the size of your effort will hurt your victims significantly and increase you chances of getting caught. And putting in the effort it would take to do it well enough not to get caught would take more work than just finding a better-paying job in the first place. Food for thought, but not a practical way to make ends meet.

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