The other day, an intriguing new book popped through my mailbox. It’s called “The Thieves Of Threadneedle Street” and tells the full story of what were known as “the great forgeries upon the Bank of England” in 1873. The author, Nicholas Booth, wrote about a World War II spy last time around; now, using full access to previously unopened archives, he tells the four story of the four Americans who nearly got away with defrauding the Bank of England of more than $5million of today’s money. Here’s a Q&A with the book’s author, Nicholas Booth.
When did you first hear about the story?
When the world’s economies were collapsing in 2008, I wondered: “Has this ever happened before?” The answer to that question is: yes. Oddly, I happened to be staying at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and that was where Willie Pinkerton had died in 1912. He is one of the key characters in the story and I had no idea. Pinkerton was by reputation the greatest detective in the U.S. And he chased the forgers all over the world. So the world’s first global economic collapse took place in 1873. I started to read about it and a little digging revealed a reference to “the great forgeries upon the Bank of England.” In October 2010, I started proper research; the rest, is they say, history.
How complicated was the fraud?
Very! What the fraudsters did was to open two bank accounts in false names – one at the Bank of England, the other around the corner in Lombard Street – and to begin with, used genuine money and notes and what were called “bills of exchange”. These were glorified IOUs that bankers would sell and trade to help the smooth flow of international trade. After a few months, they started forging the bills and nobody called them up on it. They would launder money from one account to the other, buy gold from inside the Bank of England, swap it for gold coins already in circulation, then buy government bonds which anyone could. The certainties were lost in the chain. Every part of the forgery was separate and was insulated.
As one of the forgers said, when Americans appeared in Europe, they were always presumed to be rich. All they had to do was look the part. Even though George Bernard Shaw said Britain and the U.S. are divided by a common language, they were believable. They were young, attractive, confident – they dressed well and they took things slowly. By the time they were attempting this in 1873, they’d been refining their techniques for over a decade.
How did they all meet?
Two of them were brothers: and the other two had known them for years. The problem is that they told lies and used aliases and it is sometimes hard to know what they did and when. But the first time they worked together was just after the Civil War and, as Willie Pinkerton showed, they had planned a financial 9/11 in the summer of 1871 that was only discovered when one of the gang panicked.
They were all ladies men – and yet one of the gang left because he thought the women would blab.
Yes, there were reports of their associating with various women in bars and clubs and hotels. Oddly, all of the women with whom they associated weren’t quite sure what their rich American boyfriends were doing – and only when they had been abandoned, did they tell the police everything they knew, which wasn’t much.
Were their women innocent?
Yes and no. Certainly, the bride of the suspected mastermind had no idea what he was up to. When it became clear to her that her husband of six weeks was an international fraudster, her world fell apart. Of the others, the police seemed to think that at least a couple of them were “on the town” – that meant, in Victorian England, they were streetwalkers. But to be fair, so were many other poor women who had fallen on hard times. They were hardly gangsters’ molls. They were, as the fraudsters made certain, from the upper reaches of society. They fitted in and helped give them cover.
What are the parallels with today?
Greed! That is really what the book is about; it’s a thriller, yes, but what propelled the fraud forward was greed – the banking system was overheating – and what also prompted them to be caught. They could have given up when they were ahead but they didn’t. And when the economy was on the up, everyone went crazy when it came to money. Respectable bankers bent over backwards to lend them money.
How were they tracked down?
They left an evidence trail. Even though they used lots of aliases – 41 in one estimation – they couldn’t erase all their steps. They had used aliases, but their presence was noted. So far as they were concerned, all this was circumstantial – as their lawyers certainly later argued; but it wasn’t. Their women were vengeful – two were arrested and realised they had been duped, but as I show, it was “the vengeful mother-in-law” who did for them. Hell had no fury like the mother of the innocent girl who suspected her son-in-law was a ne’er-do-well. She denounced them and so began a wonderful manhunt.
Tell us about the manhunt.
It used all the latest technological marvels of the day– steam, photograph and telegraph. There were double crosses and miraculous escapes. There were chases across rural Ireland, in Scottish cities, across the Atlantic on ships heading towards Manhattan, and most exotic of all, headed for Cuba, where the most elusive mastermind would eventually be captured – only, to escape again.
Did they atone?
Yes. One of them apologised on the stand to a bank official – and so far as anyone can make out, he was genuine. The two Bidwell brothers spent their last few years lecturing and writing that crime didn’t pay; so did their supposed patsy, Edwin Hills, who also told people to atone. But they all died in obscurity – and in want, by some accounts.
The most amazing thing is that not only was the Bank of England warned, but they had evidence at the start of the fraud that all was not what it seemed. The forgers were careless. And other bankers noticed misspelt names or dates missed off but the bank did nothing. It is amazing to me how far they got.
The forgers wrote books but they were complete liars. How did you do ensure that what you have written was accurate?
That’s a very good question. So far as possible, I have tried to make sure that there was documentary evidence to support the claims. Oddly, some of the more ridiculous claims turn out to be true. There is a wealth of evidence in the Bank of England’s archive and they let me roam freely! The lawyers for the case put together a huge briefing document and a timeline for the central part of the story in 1872/73. That gave me the narrative spine. I could hang all the stories on to that timeline and used what I wanted to get the story across. And I also make sure that where there is no evidence, I say so.
You recreate the trial. How did you choose what to use?
In an odd way, the trial parts chose themselves. I transcribed most of it from scratch because you get a sense of drama with the interplay between all the characters. Obviously, I used the start and the finish but then cherry picked what I thought were the most dramatic. The fifth day of the trial was remarkable: the gang were going to be sprung and there were guns in court. That doesn’t happen today! Another of the forger’s cross examined some witnesses when his counsel was late – that was surreal! And they literally pulled apart one of the Bank’s officials on the stand.
You use a non-linear approach. Why?
As a reader of books, you need variety. Because it was such a complicated story, if you wrote the story in sequence it would not only be longer than an encyclopedia but would get bogged down quickly. In one of the files, one of the forger’s tells his life story to Willie Pinkerton. That was a month after the forgery was discovered. I realised then that would make for great dialogue. Then I came across some hitherto unknown newspaper reports which showed they were up to no good far sooner than anyone ever thought. It freed me up to surprise the reader and to build up momentum.
The book begins with one mystery and ends with another. Do you think you have told the full story?
Yes, most of the participants didn’t think they had got to the bottom of the story. So the first recorded fraud they were involved in is an odd one, as it isn’t clear which of them did it; and months after the two brothers died, someone makes a death bed confession. When I came across that I knew “Blam! That’s the ending!”
Why did you write the book?
I enjoy a good old mystery. And this has everything – great characters, a story you couldn’t make up, travel, double crosses, tragedies. Everything! I spent five years on it and enjoyed every minute.
Here’s a link with more information on the book. Please feel free to leave a comment on this post if you’ve read the book already!
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