Edward Mueller had a tough but successful life, like many others in the first half of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until he was into his sixties that he came to national prominence, and then for a very unusual reason – he was one of the nation’s most wanted criminals. Specifically, he was a counterfeiter.
Mueller, born Emerich Juettner in Austria, had immigrated to America with his family in 1887, when he was only 13. There he took an Americanized name and set to work. He’s had basic training in machine work as a boy, and used his skills as a handyman to secure jobs in repairs and building maintenance. He was married, had children, and lived quietly with his wife until she passed away in 1937.
At that point Mueller moved to a small place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he lived with his dog and made ends meet by collecting trash, repairing it, and selling the resultant items. There was only one big problem: those ends weren’t quite being met. He was, in fact, quickly going broke.
At age 63, Mueller decided to take up a new occupation. He put his long-unused engraving skills to work making fake money.
He wasn’t a particularly skillful forger. Not only was the thread content of the paper wrong, the images had problems like improper proportions and even misspellings. Still, he was successful at passing the currency, because he only made one type: single dollar bills.
People were naturally suspicious of a $20, $50, or $100 bill. A single dollar, on the other hand, was typically ignored. A dollar could typically purchase a bottle of milk, a loaf of bread, and most of the remainder of a week’s worth of provisions, and Mueller wasn’t greedy.
At first the government agents were astounded that the effort – however inexpert – put toward creating a plate hadn’t gone toward creating a more expensive bill. As the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years, they learned the value of the single dollar.
The U.S. Secret Service steadily took the effort to bring in the counterfeiter more seriously. A public awareness campaign was started. More agents were staffed. Through it all, unabated, Mueller continued to release dollar bills at the rate of roughly one per week.
He was eventually caught, not by expert police work but by simple bad luck. In December, 1947, his apartment caught fire. The firemen extinguished the blaze and put his belongings into a nearby alley… and in the alley, a group of teens found a stack of dollar bills with the same serial number.
The bills were easily traced back to Mueller, who was convicted and sentenced, in his seventies, to one year in jail, and a single dollar as a fine.
He was released on good behavior four months later, and moved in with his daughter, where he lived until his death in 1955. A 1950 movie based on his life paid him more than he’d forged during his entire career.
Question of the night: What’s an event in your life that would make an interesting movie?