A Detective Taken In
by Sylvanus Cobb, Jr.

Our readers may remember the circumstance of the arrest, some eight or ten years ago, of a band of counterfeiters in Canada, and of the capture of a marvelous quantity of tools and implements of the nefarious craft. It may have been over ten years ago, though I am inclined to think it was a later date. However, the newspapers were full of the startling intelligence at the time, and as my story does not depend for its interest or truthfulness upon the exact date, we will not be particular. And, furthermore, if Mr. Sharp should see this bit of gossiping history, I beg that he will not blame me for having written it. He will observe that I have kept his real name out of sight; and so, if he keeps his own counsel, the uninitiated will be none the wiser touching his share in the transaction.

In that other time of which I have spoken the business community of New England was startled by the appearance of new and dangerous counterfeit banknotes. They came, no one could tell whence; but they came in great quantities; and ere long nearly every trander in the country had suffered in the possession of one or more of these bogus promises-to-pay. The flood of counterfeits increased as the weeks passed on, and so nicely executed were they that people began to lose their confidence in all kinds of bank paper.

At this stage of the game it became necessary for the banks to step in and do something; and they did it—they did it for their own salvation. They came together by their representatives, and formed an association for the purpose of breaking up counterfeiting then and in all coming time; and in the hands of an elected commission was left the business of employing such means as might be necessary to the end in view. Intelligence had been received which rendered it certain that the counterfeits were manufactured somewhere in Canada; and after a deal of inquiry and patient investigation, the bank commission not only became assured that Canada was the point of issue, but they also obtained the names of some dozen suspected men against whom the evidence was at least strong enough to warrant their apprehension.

But now, how should these men be found? Of course the work must needs be carried on carefully and shrewdly, for counterfeiters are much like crows—they must be approached so stealthily that the springing of the trap shall precede the alarm.

Away up in Maine lived an old deputy sheriff named Ralph Barnum, who had some experience in such matters, and it was suggested to the commission that they should employ him; but they fancied they knew better. They wanted no countryman to blunder in their work. They had their eye upon the very man. Mr. Samuel Sharp was a policeman of the city, and such marvelous stories had he told of his exploits in capturing rogues that his fame had reached the ears of the commission, and he was fixed upon as the agent who should bring the hidden places of the counterfeiters to light. Mr. Sharp was a gentleman, and, perhaps, a scholar; and it was fancied that he could travel over the road without its being suspected that he was an officer. At all events, Mr. Sharp was engaged to do the work; and he was accordingly furnished with money for the trip, and also with the names of the suspected parties. This last item was a very important one, and the policeman determined to make the most of it. With such information to start upon he felt sure of success—so sure, that he told his employers they might depend upon him. Written down in a little book he had the names of a dozen men who were known to be great rogues; who had been seen in Canada within a month; and who were furthermore known to have had some hand in issuing the bogus notes. The thing was now to find their lurking place; get possession of their tools and implements and stock in trade, and bring the villains to justice.

Mr. Samuel Sharp said he could do it. He said he would do it. He had a clue to the whereabouts of the rascals, and they could not escape him. He tool the rail as far as that would carry him on his way, and then took the stage. At Derby, close by the Canada line, he stopped to make his final arrangements. He was sure that his game was not far away—not many miles over the line—and he determined to approach it very carefully. On the following morning he took the stage which was to carry him into Canada; and, as the day was fine, he rode upon the box with the driver. This driver was a jolly, loquacious individual, and soon learned from his passenger that he, the said passenger, was simply traveling for his health and amusement. At noon they stopped for dinner at a small settlement, and in the afternoon Mr. Sharp had come to like the jolly driver exceedingly well,— so much so that he laughed and joked abut the peculiar institutions of the country.

“I have heard,” said he, “that you have a good many sharp rogues in Canada; and, if it is all true that has been told to me, you must be more than a match for the Yankees.”

The driver laughed, and in a joking way claimed that his people were really overburdened with honesty.

“But,” suggested Mr. Sharp, “they do a little keen horse trading once in a while?”

“When they can do it honorably,” replied Jehu, with a wink.

“And,” pursued the detective, in a careless manner, “I have heard that a goodly share of the bogus banknotes come from Canada.”

“I’ve heard such stuff myself; but I don’t believe it. I never took but one bogus note, and that I got in Vermont. I guess you Yankees make the most o’ that.”

And so they rattled on till night, when the stage stopped at a small inn, where Mr. Sharp engaged lodgings. He did not speak for a seat in the coach for the next morning, for he imagined that he must be already in the neighborhood of his game. It might be some miles away, but, in all probability, not on the line of the stage route. So he told the landlord that he might stop with him for several days, at the same time intimating that he also might want a horse and carriage to ride around and view the country.

In a little while after this the landlord and the jolly stage driver were closeted in together in a backroom.

“Who is that chap?” asked the landlord.

“He’s a poke!” emphatically replied the stage driver. “He’s come up here to look after our folks. He aint no pleasure-hunter; but he’s a bogus huntin’. He talked about bogus money.”

“Aha!” said the landlord. “I thought so.”

“But,” pursued the jolly stage driver, “that aint all. That aint half. He asked me if I’d ever heard tell of such a man as Bill Sawtell; and not afterwards he wanted to know if I ever heard of a horse trader named John Downer. In course I never heard of any such chaps. But what does he want of Bill Sawtell and Jack Downer? How did he know there was such men?”

“Aha!” said the landlord.

“He must be watched,” said the jolly stage driver.

“Aha! Leave him to me!” added the landlord. “Leave him to me!”

In ten minutes from that time a sharp-witted, quiet-mannered boy was put upon Mr. Samuel Sharp’s track, with directions to watch his every movement, and report.

After tea Mr. Sharp sat down upon the piazza, and having convinced himself that he was alone, took the little book from his pocket, and looked over the names he had there written down.

Now it so happened that Mr. Samuel Sharp was leaning his back against the sill of a window, the blinds of which were closed, and it further happened that within the little parlor stood the boy, peering between the slats of said blinds, directly upon the afore-mentioned book. By and by Mr. Sharp put up his book and walked away, and the boy went to report. He, the boy, found the landlord and the jolly stage driver in the back room, and he told them what he had seen. He had seen the book in the stranger’s hands, and he had read a lot of names that were written down there. He had read the name of Bill Sawtell, and the name of John Downer, and the name of Dennis McKnight, and some eight or ten more, which he called over, and which the landlord recognized as belonging to very particular friends of his.

“Aha!” said mine host, “I begin to smell!”

“Oho!” echoed the jolly stage driver; “that’s his game, eh?”

In the evening the landlord went into the barroom, and found the overcoat of his guest hanging upon a peg. It was a light, loose sack, which Mr. Samuel Sharp wore as a “duster.” Mine host took the garment down, and carried it away, and having ripped open the collar, and examined its make and quality, he packed in a little extra stiffening, and then sewed it up as it should be, after which he carried the coat back, and hung it up where he found it.

On the following morning, after Mr. Samuel Sharp had eaten his breakfast, and smoked a cigar, he proposed that he would take a ride. He said he might ride on to the next town, and if he did, he should not be back before night. The landlord didn’t mind that. He furnished the team, as desired, and expressed his willingness that the guest should ride whither he pleased.

In about an hour after Mrs. Sharp had gone, the landlord and the jolly stage driver bestirred themselves. They hunted up a justice and an officer, and lodged a complaint against one Samuel Sharp, said complaint setting forth that said Sharp was an issuer of counterfeit money. The justice issued a writ, and the officer started off to serve it, the landlord and the jolly stage driver bearing him company. They overtook Mr. Sharp just as he drove up to the door of the inn at the next town, and the officer arrested him at once, and took him into the parlor, where a large number of people were soon gathered.

“Good heavens, gentlemen, what do you mean?” cried Mr. Sharp. “Me a counterfeiter!”

“Oho,” returned the jolly stage driver, “don’t try none o’ that on us. I took the measure on you when you was on my stage. I marked what you said. Oho, you was a leetle too leaky, old feller. That was a bogus bill you passed on me.”

Mr. Sharp was astounded. He knew that he had said something to the jolly driver about counterfeiting, but he had no idea that it could have been turned against him.

“I must search your person,” said the officer.

“Certainly,” replied the detective.

During this operation the landlord suggested that counterfeiters sometimes hid bogus money away in strange places.

“Oho, that’s so,” said the jolly stage driver; and thereupon a more thorough search was commenced.

“Aha! What’s this?”

It was something peculiar in the feeling of the collar of the over-sack. The officer out with his knife, and ripped it open, when, lo and behold, the evidence was in sight! Within the collar, very nicely packed away between the cloth and the lining, they found eight thousand dollars of counterfeit money!

Mr. Samuel Sharp stood aghast, and knew not what to say; and when he did speak his words were only taken as so much more evidence of his guilt. In short, Sharp was fully committed, and marched away to jail, while the lookers-on went about their business; the accommodating landlord and the jolly stage driver returning to look out for the next detective that might happen along.

Mr. Samuel Sharp remained in jail eight-and-forty hours, and then managed to gain an interview with the high-sheriff. He told his story so plainly and directly, and had such documentary evidence to show, that he soon convinced the sheriff that he was really an officer in pursuit of duty, and that a rascally trick had been played upon him. The sheriff saw through the matter at length, and concluded that the prisoner might be set at liberty.

“Of course,” he said, “I cannot give you liberty at present by any legal process; but, under the circumstances, I am willing to take a great responsibility. If you will give me your word that you will return at once to your home, and not remain around here, I will persuade the jailer to let you make your escape this night.”

Mr. Sharp accepted the offer with many thanks. That night he found the door of his jail open; and, before the light of another morning, he was beyond the line, in Vermont. He reached his home, and made his report; and it was the conclusion of the bank commission that Mr. Samuel Sharp was not sharp enough for that sort of business.

The next step was to send to Maine for Ralph Barnum; and in due time Mr. Ralph Barnum made his appearance. He said he would go in quest of the rogues, and his terms were as follows: In addition to the pay he demanded for his time, he demanded the right to expend as much money on the account of his employers as he wished. He promised that he would keep a fair account of every dollar thus expended. If he wished to buy a horse, a horse he must buy; and if he wanted to buy an ox, an ox he must buy. And, if he wanted a hundred horses, or a hundred oxen, he must have the means to purchase. Only, he promised that he would be as careful as possible, and purchase that which would readily sell again.

The commission finally consented to this, and Mr. Barnum went his way. Just imagine a middle-aged, red-faced man, with an honest, jolly look; standing six feet and four inches in his stockings, and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, and you have the idea of Ralph Barnum. In the garb of an old cattle drover he made his way into Canada, and commenced at once to examine all the best stock, occasionally buying, as his fancy seemed to be suited. In this way he spent a month, in the very neighborhood where Mr. Samuel Sharp had been operated upon, and at the end of that time he was master of every secret he desired to know; and yet so carefully had he kept his own counsel, and so persistently had he followed his professed calling, that his real intent was not suspected. In the end the train was laid, the force made ready, and the trap sprung.

As I said at first, those who read the newspapers of the time, cannot have forgotten the result. It was the largest and most important haul of counterfeiters and counterfeiting implements ever made in this country. And, in closing, I may add, that conspicuous among the prisoners were the accommodating landlord and the jolly stage driver.


The New York Ledger, May 25, 1861