A True Crime Character of the Early Republic

<a href="https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/author/bland-whitley/" target="_self">Bland Whitley</a> | August 28, 2023

We encounter a lot of different characters in our work with the Jefferson Papers. Between Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests and the volumes of correspondence attendant to his role as president, there is no shortage of intriguing personages who demand our attention. So many, indeed, that they tend to disappear quickly from view as we move through the march of documents in our chronological series. A few, however, stick in the mind, inviting a deeper examination than time and our mission generally allow.

For me, one such character has been Thomas Logwood, a middling Virginia planter who was convicted in 1804 of counterfeiting notes of the first Bank of the United States. Now, Logwood wasn’t all that interesting in and of himself. But his appearance in Jefferson’s correspondence—from the initial reports of his arrest to the pardon he finally secured in 1808—opened a window into a number of subjects: the jurisdictional impediments to punishing criminals in the early republic, the destabilizing nature of scoundrels within local populations, and the possibility that networks of criminals—organized crime, if you will—were active during this period. For the purposes of this blog—we’re old-school here, no podcasts yet!—I am going to focus on one element of Logwood’s case, its intersection with the developing domestic slave trade.

A order on the Bank of the U.S. from 6 January 1792, illustrating a payment of 1550 dollars.

Order on the Bank of the United States, 6 January 1792, signed by John Jacob Astor (Wikimedia Commons from National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History).

There’s been little scholarly work done on counterfeiting during this period, most previous accounts focusing on the colonial and revolutionary period or on the latter antebellum era. While it is easy to find images of the frequently counterfeited notes of the second Bank of the United States, samples of notes of the first Bank are few and far between. Near as I can tell, however, design was not much of an emphasis. Notes involved mostly text, not fancy design imprints and would have been relatively easy to forge. That said, Logwood took pains to produce highly credible notes, which ended up being his undoing. An engraver he contacted to produce good plates on which to strike the notes became a state agent, allowing authorities to arrest Logwood and to raid his home in Buckingham County, where he had almost $20,000 in funny money.

Twenty grand—an impressive amount in 1804. What would one do with such fake riches? Some bills might be used in ordinary, day-to-day transactions, but the more fake notes were passed, the greater the risk of raising suspicion. What was needed, particularly in rural areas, were venues in which large-dollar transactions would have been more common, such as estate auctions and court days. Venues, in short, where enslaved persons were the principal commodity. Taking advantage of this system appears to have been Logwood’s design. One of his associates explained to the engraver-turned-state-agent that their chief goal was to pass $200,000 in fake bills for the purchase of enslaved laborers. After his capture, Logwood provided testimony to authorities about a network of North Carolina-based counterfeiters who appear to have shared this goal. Led by a man named Abraham Collins, this Carolina crew used fake money to purchase slaves in Virginia, transport them across state lines, and then sell them, presumably to slave traders serving the expanding cotton frontier. When a man in Norfolk was arrested for the brutal murder of a local grocer, he likewise informed authorities about members of this Carolina crew, whom he blamed for the killing. The purported murderers, identified as Morell and Foley, were said to be transporting slaves to Charleston. Conveying this information to Virginia governor John Page, Norfolk merchant Thomas Newton reported that the Carolina counterfeiters were “desperate & numerous” and in the habit of murdering those they suspect of betraying them.”

Murder, both actual and purported, gets us to the dark heart of this grubby enterprise. As deadly serious as these transactions might have been, however, there was a Keystone Kops aspect to any enforcement measures. Federal and state authorities withheld cooperation. Captured counterfeiters, including ringleader Abraham Collins, escaped jails. Newspapers bemoaned the presence of counterfeiters but were quick to deny they had local, respectable collaborators and suggested a general powerlessness at fighting the scourge. Many counterfeiters did serve hard time, including Logwood, who spent about four years in the Virginia state penitentiary (there were no federal prisons), but there was no shortage of local community groups willing to appeal for their release. Jefferson pardoned seven counterfeiters during his presidency.

A letter of 29 October 1808 from Polly Logwood to Thomas Jefferson, which includes the following quote: “I feel thereby encouraged to hope that your Excellency will not retire from Office without restoreing him to the embraces of a fond wife &amp; children”.

Polly Logwood to Thomas Jefferson, 29 October 1808, requesting a pardon for her husband: “I feel thereby encouraged to hope that your Excellency will not retire from Office without restoreing him to the embraces of a fond wife & children” (Library of Congress).

What accounts for this relative tolerance? Aside from a reluctance to fund the kind of policing that would have been necessary to interdict the trade, I’ll suggest that counterfeiting proved a useful adjunct to the burgeoning domestic slave trade. Jefferson held himself mostly aloof from this disreputable business but betrayed his knowledge of its utility in at least one case. In 1803, when one of his enslaved nailers brutally assaulted another, Jefferson recommended to his son-in-law that the offender be sold to one of the “negro purchasers from Georgia passing about the state.” It “would be as if he were put out of the way by death.” With its economic malaise and surplus slave population, Virginia must have been teeming with such “purchasers.” Notes of the first Bank would have been an important tool for facilitating transactions, but the bank’s limited reserves and the notes’ simplicity made for a strong impetus for counterfeiting. The practice might have seemed a complementary necessary evil, enabling the conversion of one form of mobile capital into another.

Two years after his pardon, Thomas Logwood advertised for sale the land he owned in Buckingham and Powhatan Counties, totaling about 2,100 acres. He intended to join the migration to the southwestern country and would “take any part of the whole of the money in likely young Negroes.” The sale was apparently slow in coming, as Logwood remained on tax lists in the two counties until 1814, but eventually he did relocate to the boom country of northern Alabama. In 1820, he was killed in Huntsville by a former business partner who had left the area in disgrace 18 months prior to the affray. Convicted of murder, Logwood’s killer served three years before being pardoned by Alabama’s governor. A newspaper account remembered Logwood as the “gentleman who first counterfeited the notes of the Bank of the United States.”

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