The Secret Service agent who studied the currency thought it was a joke. He was looking at a dollar bill that had been used at a cigar store, and it was clearly counterfeit. Even so, someone had to be putting him on. For one thing, no self-respecting counterfeiter goes to the trouble of replicating one-dollar bills; forgers go for bills of higher value. For another reason, the specimen was so bad that it seemed impossible anyone could ever mistake it for the real thing. Little did that agent know that the file he was about to create would start the Secret Service’s most expensive counterfeiting investigation, as they attempted to catch the world’s worst counterfeiter.
That first counterfeit bill showed up in Manhattan in 1938. It was the exact opposite of what investigators were accustomed to seeing. Instead of the careful craftsmanship that made counterfeit bills so difficult to distinguish from the real thing, this one was so poorly done that the Secret Service thought the perpetrator was intentionally mocking them.
There were so many things wrong with the fake bill. The paper was a far cry from the custom fabric material used for real currency. This one was printed on the cheapest paper you could purchase in any store. The serial numbers were blurry and out of alignment. George Washington’s face looked like a death mask. On top of all of that, the name “Washington, D.C.” over the Treasury Department seal was misspelled as “Wahsington, D.C.”
The Secret Service designated the unknown counterfeiter as “Mr. 880” after the number on his case file and basically assumed they would hear nothing more from him. Much to their surprise, within a month, 40 duplicate bills showed up. By mid-1938, the tally grew to 585.
The Secret Service took an increased interest in Mr. 880. Everything about the case baffled them. Mr. 880 never seemed to spend his fake money in the same place twice. He never seemed to use more than one counterfeit bill at a time. Even more frustrating was the fact that no one seemed to be able to spot the fact that the bills were clearly bogus in time to catch whoever it was who was passing them around.
New York supervising agent James J. Maloney kept scratching his head over this case. In every other investigation, he knew the counterfeiters were motivated by greed. With Mr. 880, however, something was different. He ordered his investigators to attempt to educate New York City businesses to be on the lookout for Mr. 880 and his phony bills. They handed out some 200,000 warning placards at 10,000 stores. Despite their best efforts, the bills continued to show up. By 1947, the Secret Service had documented some $7,000 of Mr. 880’s fake $1 bills — about 5% of the $137,318 of fake currency estimated to be in circulation nation-wide.
Little did the investigators suspect that the criminal mastermind known as Mr. 880 was an elderly man by the name of Emerich Juettner. He was 61 years old when his wife passed away in 1937. Lonely and in need of some means of financial support, he started collecting junk and selling anything that seemed to be of value. When this didn’t generate the income he needed, he decided to fall back on his “elementary knowledge” of metal engraving and his hobby of photography.
Juettner took a picture of both sides of a $1 bill. Using a bath of acid, he transferred the images to a pair of zinc plates, filling in missing details by hand. With a small hand-driven printing press in the kitchen of his brownstone flat at 204 W. 96th Street, he started his successful career as a federal criminal, using his horrible forgeries to fool 7,000 shopkeepers throughout New York.
Ten years would pass, with Secret Service finding no leads whatsoever. Unable to close the case, they continued to interview those who received the bogus bills while continually trying to educate the public about how to spot the fake funds. As the case dragged on, it quickly became the most expensive counterfeiting investigation in the Secret Service’s history — a fact made more frustrating by the realization that only $7,000 worth of goods had been stolen over ten years.
Despite the best efforts of some of the world’s greatest investigators, it was a team of 7 boys who would bring Mr. 880 to justice. In January of 1948, 7 schoolboys boys were playing in a vacant lot in the Upper West Side. As they poked around in a pile of junk, they found two zinc engraving plates and “30 funny-looking dollar bills.” Even though Mr. 880 had passed off his fake funds for a decade without any shopkeeper being any the wiser, these 12-year-old boys immediately knew they were not real.
Just a few weeks earlier, the apartment building where Juettner lived caught fire. When firefighters entered the apartment, they found it filled with the junk the elderly man had been collecting for a decade. In order to make room to fight the blaze, the firefighters threw some of the items out the window. That’s how the plates and the bills ended up in the alley, where they were eventually discovered by the schoolboys.
A week after the boys found the funny money, the father of one of the boys found them playing poker with the suspicious bills. He turned the fake money over to the police, who then reported it to the Secret Service. From there, the investigators were finally able to track down their elusive Mr. 880.
When questioned by the Secret Service, Juettner immediately confessed. He was prosecuted and convicted. Because of his age and because he evidently took pains to never cheat anyone more than $1, he was sentenced to 366 days incarceration. He was released after four months.
Two years after his arrest, Emerich Juettner’s story made it to the big screen in the 1950 comedy film Mister 880. The movie starred Burt Lancaster as the Secret Service agent in charge of the investigation and Edmund Gwenn as the character based on Juettner.
Juettner was paid for the rights to use his story for the movie. The amount he received in royalties was more than he ever made from his life as the world’s worst counterfeiter.
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Read more fun facts about con artists.