In the early morning hours of Sunday, August 5, 1894, representatives of the United States Secret Service department paid a visit to a modest farmhouse on Milwaukee Avenue.
There they engaged in a brief but brisk conversation with the homeowner. Immediately following this short exchange, government agents began to summarily dismantle the premises from top to bottom. When the owner asked how long this destruction would continue, he was told, “We are going to stay here till we have searched the entire establishment, and we’ve got orders to plow the whole farm up if necessary.” Neighbors aroused by the disturbance clambered across the rooftops of adjoining houses to peer over hedges that obscured their view. As word of the unusual happenings spread throughout the town, the question on everyone’s lips was, “What is going on at Ren Hoyt’s farm?”
1894 was a year of hard times. The nation was in the midst of an economic depression that had begun in February of the previous year with what came to be known as the Panic of 1893. Dwindling gold reserves, industrial overexpansion, poor crop harvests in the South and West, and an economic slump in Europe were seen as contributing factors. This economic depression would continue for four years and was the worst financial crisis the nation had ever experienced up to this time. Unemployment reached close to twenty percent at its height.
In March of 1894, an army of unemployed men led by Jacob Coxey started from Massillon, Ohio, and marched to Washington, D.C. “Coxey’s Army” would eventually number 500, and their goal was to petition the government for a $500 million public works program. The marchers camped in nearby Maryland where other jobless men were waiting, and the army’s ranks now swelled to 6,000. Upon reaching the Capitol building, Coxey and the march’s leaders were promptly arrested for trespassing on the Capitol lawn, and as a result, the movement quickly fizzled.
The following May, a strike began at the Pullman Palace Car Company situated within its company town on Chicago’s south side. When Pullman dramatically reduced wages but refused to lower rents at company-owned housing or decrease the prices of goods that it charged its employees at company stores, workers began a strike that quickly spread to other railroad companies. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a nationwide boycott of all trains using Pullman sleeping cars. The strike and boycott crippled rail traffic between Chicago and the West Coast. When angry strikers engaged in violence and vandalism, railroad executives called for federal intervention. President Grover Cleveland ordered out the army using the premise that the strikers were disrupting the delivery of the U.S. mail. The military intervention broke the strike but not until after thirty people were killed in strike-related riots, and approximately $80 million worth of damage was caused by sabotage.
With businesses and banks closing and unemployment rising, many Americans became desperate. Some decided that if they could not make money, they would make money. Counterfeiting entered its golden age. Still, the U.S. Treasury Department utilizing its Secret Service division, stood ready to snare anyone who attempted to coin or print their own currency and pass it off as the genuine article. As the events of the summer of 1894 would reveal, the level of sophistication achieved by these latest fabricators of illegal tender went far beyond what the government had ever seen before.
Today most Americans associate the United States Secret Service with the protection of the President and other important political figures, not knowing that the agency was created in 1865 as an arm of the Treasury Department. The agency’s initial intent was to directly address the growing threat of counterfeiting. Presidential security would not officially become part of the bureau’s duties until after President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901.
In February of 1894, the U.S. Secret Service was under the direction of Chief William P. Hazen. Through his operatives, Hazen was informed that an unknown band of crooks was creating currency realistic enough to be virtually undetectable, even by experts. He made it the top priority of his agency to identify these individuals and quickly bring them to justice. Little did Hazen know that his task was just about to be made infinitely easier when one of the foremost members of this same counterfeiting ring decided to contact him. A large, heavyset man calling himself James W. Murphy walked into the office of the New York City division of the U.S. Secret Service and stated that he had important information that he wished to share with Chief Hazen personally. However, the shadowy figure did not want to meet in either Washington, D.C., or New York City. He would only agree to a conference in Jersey City, New Jersey. Hazen accepted the conditions and traveled from Washington to Jersey City to hear Murphy’s story. Murphy related that he had created engraving plates capable of producing banknotes nearly identical to those made by the Mystic River National Bank of Mystic, Connecticut. (Banks chartered by the national government would have the power to issue currency until 1935.) He said he wanted to give up the plates but would require a small financial advance before he could retrieve and deliver them to Hazen. He also hinted that he might be capable of providing Hazen with much more. Convinced of Murphy’s sincerity, the chief provided him with $100 in the hope that the small outlay would pay off with a more significant return. With cash in hand, Murphy left. He then promptly proceeded to disappear without a trace. After a while, Chief Hazen suspected that he might have been killed by associates who learned of his plans to cooperate with treasury officials.
The Trap is Set
No further progress in ferreting out the rumored counterfeit ring was made until the following June, when another avenue of investigation was opened. The head of the New York City division of the Secret Service, William H. Forsyth, was contacted by an unnamed individual who described himself as a promoter. The contact stated that he was in the habit of placing advertisements in the New York City newspapers aimed at individuals who had money-making schemes that required financial backing to bring them to fruition. This promoter would sift through the replies and then offer monetary support to those that appeared most promising. However, he would sometimes receive proposals for enterprises that were not “strictly on the up and up.” Just such a plan had been recently submitted, and he decided to share it with the Secret Service. Chief Forsyth thanked the promoter and asked for his cooperation. He suggested that a new advertisement be created to entice the proponent of the dubious enterprise. The ad would read, “I want the scheme: address as before.” The bait worked, and a meeting was arranged between the promoter and the respondent who gave his name only as King. The meeting took place in Chambers Street, New York, and was closely watched by detectives. King initially discussed manufacturing counterfeit silver dollars out of real silver, which, strangely enough, would realize a profit of 50 percent due to the depressed market value of silver at the time. This plan was quickly abandoned in favor of a second proposition that offered the possibility of much greater profit. It was then that King first made mention of counterfeiting government notes. An agreement was reached regarding this proposal, and it was decided that a second meeting would follow. As the two men parted, King was shadowed to his home at 32 Cooper Street in Brooklyn, and detectives began the task of following his movements both day and night. The next meeting took place on July 28. The Secret Service gave the promoter $100 in marked bills. With this amount, he was to purchase thirty-four counterfeit ten-dollar treasury notes. The government go-between followed through, and after the transaction was completed, detectives scrutinized the purchase and found the bills to be of a type and quality they had never seen before. The false currency was described as being printed on “a remarkable imitation of the silk-fiber paper that is so much relied on to protect the public against deception.”
Suspect # 1 - Samuel Alexander Massey
Once the Secret Service had the counterfeit examples in their hands, they prepared to make their first arrest. On July 31, detectives arrived at 32 Cooper Street and arrested the man who had initially identified himself as King. This name turned out to be an alias, and the suspect was properly identified as Samuel Alexander Massey. When he was arrested, Massey had in his possession sixty-seven counterfeit Daniel Webster $10 bills and the $100 in marked bills that the promoter had supplied. Massey had formerly run a restaurant called the “Live and Let Live” located in the cellar of the Knox Hat Building at the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in Manhattan. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Massey as “a slim, shriveled old man of medium height and 65 years of age. He was dressed meanly and had been long out of employment and hard up.” The newspaper went on to say, “Recently, Massey has appeared to have very hard work to pay $12 per month rent for his flat. Two weeks ago, he went about among acquaintances and succeeded in borrowing $1. The other day he tried to borrow another dollar and did not succeed.”
“Massey has a wife and two children. He has been married twenty-five years, and his wife says they lived happily till his health failed. She is left destitute, and her appeals to friends for assistance have met with no success.”
“Mrs. Massey looks like a decent woman. An Eagle reporter who called at her house found her at the door polishing the knob. She would not talk about her husband except to say: ‘It was the most complete surprise to me. I suppose the authorities know all.’ She would not talk about her circumstances. Her neighbors say she is deserving of the deepest sympathy.”
Following his arrest, Samuel Massey was placed in the Ludlow Street Jail in lower Manhattan and placed under $10,000 bail. (This would be the equivalent of over $300,000 today.) It appears that immediate pressure was applied by the authorities to induce Massey to give up his confederates. As a result, the Secret Service made their second arrest the following day.
Suspect # 2 - Russell B. Hoyt
Even as Massey put the finger on his accomplices, it seemed that word of his arrest had already filtered back to them, and they began to take evasive action. On Wednesday, August 1, Russell B. Hoyt left his home at 315 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and boarded a train headed for his native Connecticut. Detectives followed his movements, and as he stepped from the train in South Norwalk, “a hand was laid on his shoulder, and he was requested to make the trip back to New York.”
At the time of his arrest, newspaper accounts described Russell Hoyt as the former curling department superintendent at Dunlap Hat Factory. His job was considered the most important position at the large establishment situated at the corner of Nostrand and Park Avenues in Brooklyn. One newspaper stated that he was considered perhaps the most skillful curler in the nation. He had drawn an annual salary of $4,000 (Over $121,000 today) and had earned $50 to $60 extra each week for special work ($1,500 to $1,800 currently). He was described as “a fine-looking man of forty-five” and as being “well-read, a fluent talker, and in every way qualified to fill the position that he held in the factory.”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle assembled Hoyt’s most detailed profile by interviewing Charles Keator in the first days following his arrest. Keator had served as Hoyt’s superintendent at the Dunlap Hat Factory. He stated, “The idea prevailed among his associates in the factory that he was a man of means. He spent money freely on others, although he lived modestly. He was punctual in his duties and sociable, but he never spoke of himself or of his domestic affairs. Occasionally, while in our employ, he would come to the office to get checks cashed, the proceeds, he said, of the sale of oyster beds in which he claimed to be interested.” Hoyt was described in another account as being “taciturn” and fellow tenants of his apartment house had noticed “that the keyholes of Hoyt’s apartments were always stopped up and the doors kept barred.”
In 1893, Hoyt had fallen against a stone bench in Prospect Park and injured his knee to such an extent that he could not remain at work. Shortly after that, Hoyt resigned from his position at the hat factory where he had worked for nine years. He claimed that he owned “a farm in Connecticut and that he was going into the sheep-raising business.”
When Hoyt was arraigned in court, he “vehemently protested his innocence,” and when told that his bail would be set at $10,000, he broke down and cried. His attempts to have his former superintendent at the Dunlap factory provide his bail met with no success. Secret Service detectives told the press that Hoyt had been under suspicion of counterfeiting for the previous four years.
Suspect # 3 - Charles Walker Hill
In investigating Russell B. Hoyt, Secret Service agents learned that Hoyt had rented rooms at Joseph Morgan’s farmhouse located on the southern end of Codfish Hill Extension in Bethel since the previous May. They decided to visit Morgan to see if he could shine any additional light on Hoyt’s most recent activities. They picked up Morgan at his home and were in the process of transporting him to Danbury for questioning when they happened upon a familiar face traveling down a country road. It was none other than James W. Murphy, the same shadowy figure who the previous February had promised to produce counterfeit bank plates and who had absconded with the $100 provided by Chief Hazen. The detectives persuaded Murphy to join them in their trip to Danbury, and coolly made no reference to the possibility of arrest. Despite his disappearance for nearly seven months, Murphy would later claim that he believed he had been operating on behalf of the Secret Service all along.
Once at the Danbury Jail, the investigating detectives squeezed both Joseph Morgan and James W. Murphy for all they were worth. The information they procured would blow the case wide open.
Joseph Morgan stated that both Russel Hoyt and James Murphy had boarded at his home since last May, but Hoyt had left three weeks previous. The pair had rented two rooms on the supposition that they were working on a patent and wanted to be where it was quiet. The rented rooms consisted of a bedroom and another smaller room that could not be reached without going through the bedroom. Whenever the occupants left their quarters, the smaller room was kept locked. Morgan stated that he never entered this room during their tenure and never knew what their business was. His wife Estella corroborated his story. A thorough search was made of the Morgan farm that turned up nothing.
In interrogating Murphy, who believed himself to be in the clear, detectives soon learned that they had caught a much bigger fish than they had first realized. The man who initially gave his name as James W. Murphy operated under multiple aliases. He had also been known as James W. Davis and Humphrey Otis. He was, in reality, Charles Walker Hill. Although 74 years old, he was said to be “a strong, massive man, with fine features and a sunburst smile.” Hill had been convicted of engraving counterfeit plates in 1862 and 1867 and had been on the wrong side of the law for over thirty years. He had been associated with a previous gang of counterfeiters headed by Nelson Driggs in Dayton, Ohio. Driggs had been captured in 1889, but Hill had somehow slipped away. In arresting Driggs, the authorities confiscated banknote plates capable of producing high-quality duplicates of ten-dollar bills bearing a Daniel Webster vignette. Since that time, they had been eager to learn the identity of the creator of these exceptional plates. Now, they felt pretty sure they knew. Hill’s false impression that he was acting as a special auxiliary detective for the Secret Service allowed the agency’s officials “to play him like a violin.” He informed the detectives that the counterfeit materials and machinery had been secretly moved from the Morgan farm to Lorenzo Hoyt’s home as soon as the danger to the operation was sensed. Hill now even envisioned collecting a $1,000 reward for his friends’ capture and willingly told everything he knew. His canary imitation would lead only to his downfall and the fourth and final arrest of the case. At his formal arrest in a New York City courtroom a few days later, Hill’s seething anger about being duped by the Secret Service was evident to all those who were present.
Suspect # 4 - Lorenzo Morgan Hoyt
At approximately 5 PM on Saturday, August 4, the house of Lorenzo Hoyt’ (better known as “Ren”) located at 98 Milwaukee Avenue in the Grassy Ridge section of Bethel was visited by three secret service operatives, Detectives James J. Scanlon, Thomas T. Callaghan, and Frank Esquirell. A few minutes later, one of the detectives left the house with Hoyt, and the pair then rode a horse-drawn trolley car back to Danbury, where they spent the night, presumably at the Danbury Jail. The other two officials remained at Hoyt’s home and were seen by neighbors to enter the nearby barn with hammers and crowbars.
Just after daybreak the next morning, Hoyt was escorted back to his home. A remarkable transformation had taken place overnight. Whereas Lorenzo Hoyt had been incompliant and uncommunicative the evening before, now he seemed much less self-assured. He would sink even further as he began to witness the systematic demolition of his home. The New York Times described the scene, “The operatives went into the house and were heard pounding and ripping boards away, but nothing of their movements could be seen. The ceilings and walls were removed in some parts of the house, and the floors torn up.”
“Ren” Hoyt was described as a slender, dark-haired man, 43 years of age, quiet and unobtrusive. He was someone who would not ordinarily attract attention. Hoyt worked at the Baird & Levy Hat Factory on lower Main Street, Bethel, and appeared to be very well-liked by his co-workers and neighbors. His reputation was said to be beyond reproach. Hoyt’s house was an unpretentious two-story frame cottage. It had a porch on the front and west sides and stood in the center of a well-kept lawn, dotted with shade trees. Hoyt and his wife, Eudora, had lived there since 1879. Their home was accompanied by two acres of land and was valued at $4,000 at the time.
Lorenzo and his older brother Russel had grown up on Sunset Hill Road in Bethel’s Wolfpits district. Their father had died in 1850 when Russell was not yet three, and Lorenzo was but four days old. The boys’ widowed mother took her five children to live in the nearby home of her parents. Both Russell and Lorenzo eventually chose to pursue careers in the hatting trade, with Lorenzo remaining in Bethel and Russell finding employment first in Norwalk, Connecticut, and later in Brooklyn, New York. Both men were viewed as being financially successful by the residents of their hometown.
As Secret Service agents tore up Lorenzo Hoyt’s home, they also made it very clear to him that they knew all the details regarding the counterfeiting scheme with which he was connected. Their primary concern now was to locate evidence that would unequivocally prove the guilt of the ring members. To secure the desired materials, the detectives promised Lorenzo that he would not be prosecuted for his role in any illegal activity if he provided state’s evidence. The deal offered also seems to have included assurance of a lighter sentence for his brother, who was not in good health. As an added inducement to cooperate and as irrefutable proof of their detailed knowledge, the detectives brought Charles W. Hill to the Hoyt farm. Lorenzo could now see that the handwriting was undoubtedly on the wall and felt compelled to capitulate. Hill instructed Lorenzo to bring out the counterfeit plates. After spending a few moments in his barn, Hoyt did as directed and returned with the coveted Webster head plates. Murphy then said, “Go get the others.” Additional materials were produced from within Hoyt’s barn, but the most significant yield of treasure was to be found buried in the yard. With Lorenzo Hoyt directing the effort, shovels and spades quickly revealed what Hoyt had made so much effort to conceal after learning that authorities had arrested Massey on July 31. The results of the search effort were extraordinary.
U.S. Secret Service detectives came away from the Hoyt farm with all of the following:
- $13,000 in counterfeit ten-dollar bills
- Counterfeit bank plates for making $20 gold certificate notes with a James Garfield vignette, as well as the Mystic River National Bank $10 notes, and the Daniel Webster vignette $10 notes
- A seventy-five-pound bundle of green, silk-fiber paper that closely imitated genuine paper utilized by the U.S. mint and that would have been sufficient to print $500,000 in counterfeit bills
- A fine set of engraving tools
- Parts of a printing press
- A catalog offering various types of printing ink
- A coffee solution designed to age the counterfeit bills and give them a more authentic appearance
The items unearthed at the Hoyt farm were brought to the Adams Express office in downtown Bethel and then shipped by rail to the Secret Service headquarters in New York City. Lorenzo was arrested, brought before a court in New Haven but then quickly released on $2,000 bail paid by his father-in-law.
The Room Where It Happened
On August 14, Lorenzo Hoyt was brought to New York City to be questioned by a United States Commissioner in a formal examination of evidence. As part of his agreement to provide state’s evidence to U.S. authorities, Lorenzo identified both his brother Russell and Charles W. Hill as being together at the Morgan farm earlier in the month. “I saw both Russell B. Hoyt and Hill working a printing press in a room in the house. They were printing counterfeit $10 bills. I also saw the plates from which the Webster head bills were printed in the room. The plates were given to me to take care of, and I gave them to Secret Service Officers Scanlon and Esquirell.” The printing press used by the two men was described as being located on a bench that was four feet long and two feet high.
“This was about August 4th. Hill took about $5,000 of the Webster head bills with him when he left Bethel. I first saw the plates for the Webster head bills two years ago. I kept the plates for two years underneath my barn.” “When asked directly, “What part did you take in the manufacture of this money?” Lorenzo responded by saying, “I didn’t take any part. All I did was take the press away, and I hid it when I learned that Massey had been arrested.”
Estella Morgan next testified of how Russell Hoyt and Hill had rented rooms in her farmhouse. She stated that Lorenzo Hoyt came there frequently and brought men to call on his brother and Hill.
In light of the overwhelming evidence represented by the substantial collection of materials seized, Lorenzo Hoyt’s damning testimony, and the clever detective investigation carried out by the Secret Service, the fate of the three suspects was all but certain. Accordingly, their legal counsel advised them to avoid a jury trial by pleading guilty and throwing themselves upon the mercy of the court.
Samuel A. Massey
Samuel A. Massey, who had sold counterfeit bills to the Secret Service intermediary, was arraigned in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, on October 30, 1894. He was sentenced to five years to be served at the Kings County Penitentiary in Brooklyn, New York. Leniency may have been exercised due to Massey being 65 years of age at the time of sentencing.
Charles W. Hill
Charles W. Hill, who was identified as the initiator of the scheme and as the expert engraver of the bank plates, was arraigned in the United States District Court in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 7, 1894. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Judge William K. Townsend to eight years to be served at the Connecticut state prison in Wethersfield. Leniency may also have played a part in Hill’s punishment as he was said to be 74 years old when sentenced.
Russell B. Hoyt
Russell B. Hoyt was found to have provided much of the needed financial backing for the counterfeiting operation and to have assisted in the printing process. He was also arraigned with Hill in Hartford on December 7, 1894. He received the identical sentence of eight years to be served in the Wethersfield prison. Here leniency may have been exercised due to Hoyt’s declining health. He was suffering from severe rheumatism and the early stages of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment today most often termed acute nephritis. The maximum sentence that could be handed down for counterfeiting at the time was fifteen years.
Lorenzo M. Hoyt
Lorenzo M. Hoyt was also discovered to have contributed financial support for the gang’s enterprises and to have concealed most of their equipment and materials at his home. Due to his decision to provide state’s evidence, his previously clean record, and favorable reputation within his hometown, Lorenzo Hoyt was not prosecuted and returned to his position at the Baird & Levi Hat Factory.
The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained
Less than a year after his sentencing, Russell Hoyt’s friends were actively working for his early release in light of his continued health decline. An article in The Meriden Daily Republican of August 17, 1895, under the headline, “Counterfeiter Dying,” stated, “It is said that he is afflicted with incipient paralysis and that his physicians and the prison surgeons affirm that he cannot survive much longer.” An article appearing two months later in the same paper provided additional details. “His left side is suffering from creeping paralysis, and of course, his condition is slowly growing worse. He is now practically blind in one eye. Hoyt is said to be a model prisoner.” His friends forwarded a formal petition for his pardon to President Grover Cleveland. On November 13, 1895, The Meriden Daily Journal contained news of the official response. “It is announced that the petition submitted to the President by Russell B. Hoyt of Bethel, who is now serving an eight years’ sentence in the Connecticut state prison for counterfeiting, has been denied by Mr. Cleveland.”
Despite his criminal status, it cannot be said that Russell Hoyt was a man without friends. In March of 1897, a new president took office. Hoyt’s sympathetic friends began their efforts anew, led by Bethel’s State Representative, William S. Wortman, and Connecticut’s influential U.S. Senator, Orville H. Platt. This time their crusade met with success when on May 14, 1898, U.S. Attorney General John W. Griggs recommended Hoyt for a pardon. Two days later, President William McKinley formally approved it. The day after his release was secured, Hoyt arrived in Bethel in a rented carriage accompanied by an official from the Wethersfield prison. He was brought to the home of his brother Lorenzo. The time the two shared would be precious but brief. Eight months later, Russel Hoyt would die at Danbury Hospital on January 14, 1899, at age 50. His brother Lorenzo would quietly live out his life for another thirty-nine years dying in 1938 at the age of 87.
In attempting to draw a moral from the Bethel counterfeiting ring’s story, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wondered why such gifted individuals would waste their abilities on nefarious enterprises. The paper lamented, “The fellows have pluck, talent, energy. Why under the sun do they not put them to legitimate use? They work as hard to get into state prison as other men do to keep out of it, or to get rich or make a good living.” It went on to say, “The combination of skill possessed by these four men would have made each of them independent, had they directed it to the right ends.”
But the Eagle also drew parallels between the counterfeiters and prominent figures such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. These businessmen would come to be known alternately as “Captains of Industry” by their supporters or “Robber Barons” by their detractors in the Gilded Age that was quickly drawing to a close. “The tendency of the time is to get rich or to try to. Counterfeiters are not the only ones whose methods of speeding fortune are too shady for public practices. There are doings in Wall Street and elsewhere that are just as wrong in the eyes of the higher law as the forging of money.”
The August 1894 issue of The American Hatter magazine offered its view on the counterfeiting case in a way that was equally profound though decidedly more direct. “This is only another exemplification of the fact that it don’t pay in the long run to be dishonest. Make your greenbacks by honest toil, and you will sleep easier nights.”
Special thanks are extended to Pat Rist, President of the Bethel Historical Society, for providing access to documents from the Society’s archives pertaining to Russell and Lorenzo Hoyt.