A Bouquet of Rogues
In the spring of 1938, an elderly and generally law-abiding widower named Edward Mueller moved into a sunny twenty-five-dollar-a-month flat on the top floor of a tenement at 204 West 96th Street, near Amsterdam Avenue. He had been a building super nearby for many years, while he brought up a family; now he thought he might make out as a junkman. He was a better collector than a salesman, though, and his small apartment soon filled to the ceiling with odds and ends picked up from vacant lots and along the riverfront. His pockets remained empty.
Mueller was a small, happy-looking man with a hawk nose, a wispy white mustache, and a fringe of white hair. He usually dressed eccentrically in layers of nondescript clothing. He had never bothered to give a name to the mongrel terrier that accompanied him on his rounds. If anyone asked why, Mueller would reply, “What good would the name do the dog?” and reward the questioner with a merry, toothless grin.
He had another eccentricity, too. Having realized fairly soon that his trade in second-hand goods would keep neither him nor his dog in food, he had installed a small hand press in a corner of his kitchen, and for the next ten years he used it to support his little household by printing small batches of very bad counterfeit one-dollar bills, which he passed in shops throughout the Uper West Side and other parts of town. For thousands of Mr. Mueller’s fellow New Yorkers this practice resulted in slight economic annoyance. For the United States Secret Service, whose job it was to catch him, it resulted in intense and prolonged exasperation.
He wasn’t greedy. He printed only two or three dollars of counterfeit a day, as need arose, and he took care to spend only one of his handmade bills in any one place. That way, he said, “no one would lose more than the one dollar.” He palmed off about five thousand of them all together. The Secret Service, trying to trap him, interviewed hundreds of shopkeepers. They passed out tens of thousands of handbills warning against the queer money. It did no good. Nobody, it seemed, troubled to look carefully at a one-dollar bill.
And a good thing, too. Mr. Mueller’s handiwork was something really special: the worst, clumsiest forgeries the T-men had ever dealt with. They were printed on cheap bond paper, with inferior inks applied to zinc plates of embarrassingly poor quality. The lettering was crude and occasionally illegible, and George Washington’s left eye was rendered as a blob of ink. The name under the portrait was spelled “WAHSINGTON.”
But Mueller had no trouble getting people to accept them. And though he made no effort at all to cover his tracks, the Secret Service never came close to finding him, despite a search that exceeded in scope and intensity any previous manhunt in the annals of American counterfeiting. By early 1948 his case, file number 880, had become the oldest one one on the service’s books. Most treasury agents regarded Old Mister Eight-Eighty as a “terrific headache”; some, more reflective, admitted that he was also, in terms of longevity at least, the most successful counterfeiter in American history.
It was luck, not sleuthing, that eventually delivered him into their hands. In 1948 a fire broke out in Mueller’s kitchen, and the firemen threw his printing plates and some phony cash out the window with the ashes. The bills were found by some boys, who naturally thought they were some kind of inferior play money and swapped them around the neighborhood, whence they found their way into the hands of treasury agents. The trail led back to Mueller, and the genial paperhanger was indicted; in deference to his age and relatively innocent motives, he was required to serve only four months in New York’s federal jail. His criminal career had made him one of the most sought-after felons of modern times, and his story was eventually told in a New Yorker profile and an MGM movie, but Mr. 880 never could see what the fuss was about. As they’d explained the day of his arrest, “It was my way of making a living.”
See Chapter 11 for more intriguing Upper West Side felons.