Then and Now

Mary Butterworth: counterfeiter


Counterfeiting by both men and women was as old as the colony. Every type of money we ever had was copied. This included the wampum peage of the Indians, which was legal tender in Rhode Island until 1662.

When the English settlers set the value of the wampum according to the price of beaver skins in London, the natives became confused and angry at the fluctuation of value. They were often cheated or felt that they were. They countered by dying the white beads, which were half the value of the blue-black beads. Some of the dyed beads were so well done that beads dyed in 1647 were not known to be counterfeit until the l9th century.

Mary Butterworth learned from the mistakes of Freelove Lippencott and the Kingston counterfeiters. This Rehoboth lady realized that Rhode Island money could be easily duplicated, not by heavy plates, which were clumsy, difficult to use and easily presented as evidence in a trial. Instead of using plates, she set up a little counterfeiting plant right in her own kitchen and made it the most prosperous "ring" in New England. In her workshop she utilized the services of her seven children and her brothers and cousins.

With these ready and willing workers she “copied” the bills by lifting the print with a piece of damp, starched muslin. Once the muslin picked up the impression, she would then iron the material on a piece of paper. With a quill pen, expertly made by her brother from crow feathers, Mary carefully went over the impression and turned out some good quality pen and ink work. Her bills were so good that she had no trouble passing them off at a local inn whenever she wanted “extra money.”

In time, she expanded her base of operation and sold large numbers of bills at half value. Mary’s money spread throughout the colonies and to Europe as well. Whenever she was in danger of being arrested, she simply burned the bills, the muslin and the pens. Without any plates to be caught with, she was never convicted.

Mary did well in her chosen field and was able to laugh at the authorities in her old age, but she never achieved the wealth and honor that some pirates and privateers did. It is often difficult to distinguish between a pirate and a privateer. By definition, a pirate is a criminal who plunders and robs ships at sea, while a privateer is one operating legally by commission of a duly recognized authority and only preys upon enemies in time of war. In reality, both often do the same thing. Their status is at times determined by who invests with the captain, how much booty is involved, or how big a price is paid for a commission. Former pirates became privateers and vice-versa. The deciding factor could depend upon the date the act was committed, for if the colony was at war any seizure of a ship on the high seas would be privateering. Rhode Island had its own admiralty court, and it decided who was a pirate and who was a privateer. Rhode Island became notorious as a haven for pirates, and it was often the place where pirates retired.

This colony commissioned many privateers during the wars between England and her rivals, France and Spain, not so much out of patriotism as because of the profits that were possible. When the wars were over, privateers often kept preying upon the former enemy.

When caught at it, they were often able to get a Rhode Island magistrate to change a few dates to make the capture legal. For the right price, most Rhode Island governors would grant commissions and many magistrates would backdate loot and ships brought into Rhode Island harbors. There was seldom a lack of willing investors from Rhode Island as the chance of profit was great. Fortunes were made and lost on these ventures, which were both lucrative and risky. In these “wars” over 65 vessels from Rhode Island were captured, sunk or lost at sea.


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