“A gentleman who at times came in violent contact with the laws of his country.”
Sharpers, frauds, schemers, and grifters trolled early America. Pickpockets patted down marks in the anonymity of burgeoning cities, while quacks and religious charlatans proliferated. After the upheaval of Revolution and the commencement of nation-building, people sought easy money and redemption amid the turmoil. Deceivers have always reigned in uncertain times, and during the post-Revolution period, with the country grappling for distinction, national and personal identity were in restless flux. It was the dawn of American know-how and hucksterism, when a newly minted citizen could pursue his or her destiny to be someone else entirely. And being someone else was Stephen Burroughs’s specialty.
“I consider a man’s merit to rest entirely with himself, without any regard to family, blood or connexion,” he maintains in The Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs, with the individualistic rambunctiousness that embodied his era’s prevailing Americanness. Burroughs was born in 1765 and raised in Hanover, N.H., the son of a Presbyterian minister. Notwithstanding his strict upbringing, he was known as “the worst boy in town.” Indications of his later “criminations” were patent from adolescence onward; he relished “the terror of the people where I lived.” Among other boyhood hijinks, Burroughs once nabbed a watermelon from a farmer, then volunteered on the search party to track down the culprit. Sabotaging outhouses was also part of his repertoire, and in one noteworthy jape, he and a companion piled logs in front of a neighbor’s door, then made a lot of noise and watched as the lumber buried the man. “Those who could get him whipt were most worthy of esteem,” Burroughs says, in the third person.
At the age of 14 he ran away from home to join the Continental Army; he was discharged at his father’s request, only to reenlist twice more with the same result. He was expelled from Dartmouth College because of another watermelon incident, in which he and a cohort were also thought to be hostile Native American scouts. During the Revolution, Burroughs set sail on a privateer — having gained passage as a physician, his first faux-identity — but was put in the brink for giving too much wine to the seamen.
Once disembarked, he borrowed a bagful of his father’s sermons and took off down the Connecticut River. His first stop was Ludlow, Mass., where he impersonated a preacher and was paid $20 per homily. He then scammed a few more New England hamlets before auditioning for a full-time ministerial position in Pelham. The put-up, or that initial part of the con where the victim is chosen based on his needs or proclivities, was a cinch in early America. Burroughs was absolutely committed to his sham, and easily convinced town folk of his sincerity, although people were suspicious of his attire on the pulpit: “a light grey coat, with silver plated buttons, green vest, and red velvet breeches.” A drawing from the time depicts him exhorting a small congregation from atop a hay bale, arms raised and looking maniacally genuine. Sometimes he bought into his own role-playing, it was said, utterly inhabiting the person he was pretending to be.
It wasn’t long before he was unmasked. A former Dartmouth classmate passed through town and revealed that Pelham’s minister was in actuality a no-good practical joker. Burroughs was chased into a barn by angry Pelhamites. Holding them off with a scythe, he shouted, according to one bystander, “Then said the Lord: ‘I will give them a Minister like to themselves, full of all deceit, hypocrisy and duplicity.’” Another version, supplied by Burroughs himself, tells of a stranger who confronted the mob: “He preached well — you paid him well. What signified what he called his name?”
He fled to New Salem, where he took up with an alchemist named Philips. A belief that base metals could be transformed into gold by way of metallurgy, chemistry, and wishful thinking was an attractive prospect for an enterprising rascal like Burroughs, but Philips quickly conned the imposter out of his deposit and disappeared. Another type of alchemical process soon lured the former faux-minister: counterfeiting. He joined a gang led by one Glazier Wheeler, a well-known coiner, on the advice “Lysander,” an almost certainly imaginary friend, says one historian. “The only thing necessary to make a matter valuable,” Lysander is supposed to have told him, “is to induce the world to deem it so.”
Before long Wheeler tapped Burroughs and Lysander to run fake coins throughout Massachusetts, offering the budding counterfeiter hands-on lessons in the craft of minting. Around 1785, Burroughs was caught passing fake silver to an apothecary in Springfield; he was tied to the Wheeler outfit and both men were sent to the Northeast’s own Alcatraz, an offshore fortress near Boston called Castle Isle. He tried a few daring escapes, but was continually recaptured. In his last attempt, he fled by means of a stolen boat and was apprehended the very next day.
During his incarceration, the nature of counterfeiting changed dramatically. The transition from British outpost to recognized nation, with its insecurities and half-formed economy, made counterfeiting a particularly lucrative venture. Banking in the U.S. was chaos at the tail end of the 1700s and into the following century. The first national bank started issuing notes in 1782; nine years later, Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of North America appeared. Speculators and states eagerly sought charters in a system seemingly geared toward unscrupulousness. Cronyism and unregulated institutions flourished, and the government had neither the power nor the manpower to curb the expansion. From 1791 to the 1810s, the number of these shady banks went from five to 300. Dissimilar currencies flooded into the market willy-nilly, causing the distinction between counterfeit and genuine cash to be all but indistinguishable. Mistrust of a federal reserve, bullish speculation, a hatred of creditors, and can-do Americanness fueled the havoc. To be a counterfeiter in the age of Thomas Jefferson, many believed, was a way to involve oneself more intimately in the flow of capital. Without any foresight of the repercussions of this hyperactivity, forgers and amateur bankers ran a colossal, haphazard counterfeiting ring that appeared to encompass the republic.
Once released from Castle Isle in 1788, Burroughs served as a schoolteacher in Massachusetts. His tenure was interrupted when he was accused of seducing one of his teenage students, and he barely escaped a public shaming at the whipping-post. Next, he headed south to Long Island, where he was installed as an instructor in another school. Instead of committing more improprieties, he astonishingly helped establish one of the first public libraries in the United States. Afterwards he sojourned to Charleston and then Savannah, still in the guise of a teacher. In 1795 he transformed into a land surveyor, having heard about a massive development project in Georgia’s Yazoo watershed. The governor, George Matthews, and the state assembly were parceling out cheap land to confederates and political allies, who then repackaged the lands, at absurd profits, to unsuspecting investors. When the scheme burst into one of the era’s most noteworthy scandals, Burroughs was bamboozled by a ruined financier’s lawyer and struck out north to recoup.
Seeking a listenership for the colorful episodes of his life, Burroughs wrote the first volume of his autobiography. The book was an instant bestseller. At only 32 years old, the author delighted people with his catalog of pranks and impostures. It’s a criminal’s romp through Revolution-era America, and the picaresque portrait he drew captured the nation’s craving for audacity, ingenuity, and uniqueness. Burroughs doesn’t even pretend to apologize for his connivances; he garnishes his crimes to such an extent that the editor interjects with several footnote invalidating Burroughs’s “high colored” embellishments.
Sometime during this period he wedded his cousin. Aware now that lawfulness didn’t suit him, he moved them to Stanstead, a tiny Canadian village wedged against Vermont. Because of a land dispute, the town was in a limbo between the U..S and England, skirting the laws of both. It was a hotbed of British Loyalists, and so for Burroughs an ideal hideaway, even if the region was patrolled by often crooked bounty hunters. Away from the strictures of his native land, he converted his farm into a “manufactory,” and became a counterfeiter. He then acquired land in nearby Shipton, setting up a second location for his illicit printing. From a mom-and-pop startup in 1800, the undertaking had become a large-scale production running bogus cash up and down the East Coast by the middle of the decade. Along with his counterfeiting duties, Burroughs and his wife were also raising a family.
In 1805, Sheriff Mike Barron, apprehended two men in the Northeast carrying a bunch of counterfeit bills. Burroughs was quickly ascertained to be the supplier of the funny monies. Barron and a posse raided Burroughs’s Stanstead works and arrested the ringleader in short order. One aside from the Memoirs has Burroughs asking to be unshackled; when his request is granted, Barron finds himself staring down a pistol Burroughs has produced from thin air. Burroughs pulls the trigger, but the gun jams. Taking the gun away from him, Barron asks what he’d meant to do. “To shoot you,” Burroughs calmly replies. Regardless of how it turned out, Burroughs was handed over to a justice of the peace, Oliver Barker, since Barron couldn’t legally bring him across the border. Barker managed to wrangle Burroughs to Montreal. After a round of finagling, he posted bail and fled. He was hounded down by Barker and imprisoned once more. This time he escaped altogether, he claims, with the assistance of some well-placed contacts unfavorable to American interests.
By now the Memoirs were readily available, and tales of his escapades, together with purple reportage about his doings, stoked him into a quasi-mythic criminal. Condemned by eastern banks, which portrayed him as nothing but a well-publicized fugitive, he was commended by others for defrauding a majorly corrupt establishment. Quite the opposite of the prim, greedy merchant, Burroughs was incomparable and charming according to nearly everyone he encountered. To his admirers, Burroughs’s counterfeits were sticks of dynamite shoved into a loathed system. His wickedness was fun and cathartic, a “sophisticated wickedness,” as Robert Frost would say, “that can twinkle.” The Memoirs would make him into a precursor of the celebrated outlaws of pop culture: a mischief-making trickster hero equally vilified and extolled.
Still at large after the Montreal escape, Burroughs expanded his production by hiring several engravers, though he continued to helm the printing press. His children were accomplices: the boys were used as couriers while his daughter acted as his personal assistant. Hundreds of bills poured south over the border, creating a miniature bootleg economy all its own. His notoriety was outdistancing his actual deeds: pontificators blamed him for whatever brand of immorality was prevalent; copycat forgers plied his craft. Illegal tender was frequently attributed to him without any evidence, and an unaffiliated counterfeiter was just as likely to call himself Stephen Burroughs as to go by any other name.
More stunts bolstered his renegade status. One narrow escape, reprinted with aplomb, had Burroughs strapping on a pair of snowshoes backwards to baffle Barker and his minions long enough for him to get away. During the Farmers Exchange Bank Scandal in 1811, he put out an open-letter to those responsible for the banking disaster, comparing their practices to that of a “Pancake Exchange.” His folksy take-down of his “legitimate” rivals, fabricating his own American Dream and duping his pursuers again and again — here was a misbehaving rogue composited from the people’s own grievances and frustrations. He was known as something of a philanthropist in Stanstead, ingratiating himself to his adopted countrymen with public works projects and kindness. To many citizens, he was nothing short of a folk celebrity, and they manipulated him accordingly into whatever saint or devil they needed.
Around that time, pirated copies of the Memoirs began to appear. A fraudulent publisher counterfeiting Burroughs’s life story must have tickled him pink. His manufactories continued pumping out banknotes, but eventually Barker tracked him down and bundled him to Trois-Rivieres, a town at the northernmost reaches of the St. Lawrence River. Tired or resigned, Burroughs didn’t try to escape. Americans following the saga debated whether he’d be hanged or deported and then hanged. Instead of being punished, however, he was pardoned. He returned to his Quebec manufactories and, at least in Canada, wasn’t any longer a wanted man.
When the War of 1812 came along, Burroughs assumed a whole new identity: British spy. Among his claims while engaged in the cloak-and-dagger business was helping to avert a riot. At war’s end he was brought to trial in the U.S. for treason. In typical Burroughs fashion, he claimed to be a double agent who’d secretly gathered intelligence for America, but a life of falsehood had finally caught up to him. His farm titles and land was stripped from his ownership; he was permitted back into Canada, but his counterfeiting days were finished. With his family in tow, he relocated to Trois-Rivieres, where he’d found such a friendly justice system. Going full circle, he became a schoolteacher.
In the latter-1810s Burroughs shifted tack in an attempt at self-reform. He converted to Roman Catholicism and took to conversion with the same zeal he’d once feigned for $20 a sermon. Volume 2 of the Memoirs was published in 1839, bringing the public up to date on his recent exploits. Before the Civil War, the book would go through nearly 30 editions. Notwithstanding his newfound piety, his black market accomplishments are related with the same indulgent gusto as the first volume, glorying unrepentantly in his counterfeiting.
“Diddling Considered as an Exact Science,” an 1843 essay by Edgar Allan Poe, explains the machinations of the diddler (the term “confidence man” wasn’t derived until 1849). “The ingredients,” says Poe, “are minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin.” He wasn’t specifically talking about Burroughs, but any of these designations are fitting ways to describe the man. Reflection and distortion of the precocious young democracy, he personified the country’s disheveled nonconformist traits, exuding a Jeffersonian by-the-bootstraps charisma that won him many allies and enemies alike. He epitomized while caricaturing the national obsession for the self-made man; he manipulated the manipulators of feral capitalism; he was an updated Robin Hood fleecing a rigged economic order. Like all great heroes and villains, he was a metonymy of his age: an adaptable original, and a true fraud.
To him belonged the title of several American firsts: first native-born con man and imposter; first escape artist; first large-scale counterfeiter. Later scammers and forgers would be far more sophisticated, of course, but the rudiments of their craft are heirlooms of his schemes. Burroughs died in 1840 without any further perpetrations. Fans visited the great pretender in his sitting-room, where he read and lounged. He was always amiable, they reported, and eager to chat about his criminal past. At least one guest commented on the many paintings adorning the walls, mainly episodes of martyrdom and suffering in Christian hagiography. When pressed about them, right up to his final days, Burroughs steadfastly refused to tell acquaintances which were authentic and which fake.
Image Credit: The Met.