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No Counterfeits: The History of the Secret Service


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Abraham Lincoln established the agency 150 years ago, on the very day he was shot. Wow.

Even if Lincoln had authorized the Secret Service earlier, it’s doubtful it could have prevented his assassination Though the job performance of Lincoln’s bodyguards will remain a subject of eternal debate, it was unthinkable that an actor in a play would try to murder the President. And though presidential security tightened after Lincoln’s death, the Secret Service he authorized wasn’t originally intended to guard the president at all. In fact, it had a much more mundane mission: investigate and stop counterfeit money.

By 1865, up to one-third or even one-half of American money in circulation was fake. This was partly due to an old system of relying on state banks to produce money using approved designs and paper provided by the Federal Government. But though the country adopted a national currency in 1863, federal dollars were as easy to counterfeit as state-produced ones. Spurred by the daredevil escape of counterfeiter Pete McCartney, who eluded federal guards and was rumored to have produced as much as $100,000 in faux cash, Lincoln called a commission to figure out a fix for the fake money problem. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch came up with a solution—a “regular permanent force whose job it [would] be to put these counterfeiters out of business.”

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