One of the most notorious counterfeiters in U.S. history was named Mister 880, but he didn’t become infamous for the huge amounts of money he stole; rather, it was because he only printed poorly produced $1 bills, and he eluded capture for 10 long years.
The story began in 1938 when a series of fake dollar bills began filtering into the New York City economy. This caught the attention of the Secret Service, which is best known these days for protecting the President but was actually founded in 1865 to halt the rampant counterfeiting that had started happening following the Civil War.*
It was surprising that people fell for these bogus bucks. They were produced on a small hand-driven printing press from a set of poorly produced plates. Bills would have typos on them, and George Washington’s face wasn’t always drawn correctly. Nevertheless, merchants accepted them, and only realized they were fakes after bringing them to the bank.
The Secret Service opened a case file — number 880 — and eventually started referring to the counterfeiter as Mister 880. They posted a map of New York on the office wall and placed red thumbtacks on businesses that had received the bills. There didn’t seem to be a pattern, and with no more than forty or fifty of these bills popping up in a month, the Secret Service couldn’t get a lead on the mysterious Mister 880. The case remained open for 10 frustrating years.
The Mister 880 True Story
One day a group of boys were out exploring their neighborhood when they came upon some piles of trash left over from a fire at a nearby apartment. In it, they discovered a couple of zinc engraving plates for printing money and some phony dollar bills.
Not knowing of the counterfeiting scheme or what engraving plates were, the boys took the cash and plates home and began playing with them until one of their fathers caught them. He brought the cash to the local police, who in turn contacted the Secret Service. Everyone was stunned when government agents swooped in to investigate, eventually finding the boy with the engraving plates. They tracked this back to the site of the fire, and the truth was finally revealed.
The fire had occurred in the fifth-floor, two-room apartment of a toothless 72-year-old widower named Edward Mueller, who had lived there with his dog. Mueller was a junkman, picking through people’s garbage and taking pieces home to repair so he could hopefully resell them. There are some discrepancies in the story here — some sites saying Mueller wasn’t there at the time of the fire, others say the dog woke Mueller so he could escape; in both cases, they agree that the dog died in the blaze.
During the incident, firefighters had tossed a lot of Mueller’s junk out into the street, including the pack of bills and plates.
Edward Mueller was born in Austria by the name Emerich Juettner. He learned some engraving there before immigrating to America in the 1890s. According to the New York Daily News, “He settled into an ordinary life in New York with his wife and two children, supporting them by working as a janitor. By 1937, his children had married and moved away. That year, his wife died.”
Mueller lived off collecting junk, but sometimes he fell short of cash. When that would happen, he’d print out a few bills — just enough to buy food for himself and the dog. Clearly the judge didn’t see him as a credible threat to the U.S. Treasury. As Snopes stated:
Mueller, a likeable and otherwise upstanding man, was charged with counterfeiting and sentenced to a year and a day in jail, but his term was knocked down to four months behind bars. Up until his arrest, neither his son nor his daughter had any idea of what their father had been up to or that he’d been in financial distress. The old man had valued his independence to the point of preferring to engage in a life of crime rather than turn to his children for help, children it appears who would have been all too willing to help their aging father.
In retrospect, authorities realized Mueller was never caught because he never passed his fake bills at establishments more than once, “for the express purpose of limiting the shortfall he caused any one person to no more than a single dollar.” This was why there were no repeat offenses or a discernible pattern in his behavior. Likewise, he was never greedy, only printing what he needed to survive. And, he was only passing off $1 bills, which even Depression-era survivors never expected to be forged.
After his capture, Mueller never counterfeited again. When asked to explain why he was giving up counterfeiting, he said simply, “There isn’t enough money in it.”
In 1950 the movie Mister 880 came out based on these events. It starred Burt Lancaster as the Secret Service agent in charge of the investigation. Edmund Gwenn, best remembered as the Santa in Miracle on 34th St., played Mueller.
*Regarding the role of the Secret Service, Snopes.com notes, “Protection of the President was added to the Service’s duties only in response to the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. These days, the Secret Service’s jurisdiction in the financial crimes arena has been expanded beyond the counterfeiting of U.S. currency into forgery, theft of U.S. Treasury checks and bonds, credit card fraud, telecommunications fraud, computer fraud, and identity fraud.”