The Biggest Financial Man on the Cuyahoga

THE MOST BELOVED, most exciting money man on the entire Cuyahoga shore from 1800 to 1850 was James Brown at Boston.

While many doers of good works are scored as cowards, Mr. Brown in his vast larceny was a symbol of unbelievable gallantry. Heroically molded, he stood straight as a promise, six foot two, unbooted. Feature by feature, the face was not carefully handsome, but it had slashing good looks under blue-black hair and a luminous smile.

Even his most effective enemy, Sam’l A. Lane, sheriff of Akron, conveyed well on 2,000 Reward posters that Brown’s frame and deep-set eyes were commanding. He described Brown’s voice as genial and his manner courtly.

Clothes hung on him as on a tailor’s dummy. His drinking was correct and his marriage to Lucy Watrous Mather, of Cleveland’s then first family, was the stamp of social distinction.

Brown’s friends, who were many, often complimented Lane on the accuracy of the written descriptions of him on the Reward posters and on the pages of Akron’s reform newspaper.

As editor of the Buzzard, Lane had flushed out of the Cuyahoga valley scores of corrupt and fraudulent men. As sheriff he jailed them. But with neither portfolio could he make a case stick against the towering prestige of James Brown. While in the same breath sincerely complimenting Lane on his descriptive prose, the people said of course they had no information leading to the conviction of Mr. Brown; and, if they did, they would certainly have no part in the downfall of such a fine man. “In fact, you ought to write a book about him.”

Being both experts of the world, Lane and Brown recognized each other as formidable. It was not lost on Brown that Lane was one of those wiry enduring men who never tire. Lane’s humor he knew was not the jolly unguarded type. He laughed a split second too late.

Lane himself admired Brown, but he was committed to arresting and convicting him.

“I’m going to tell them in print what you’re doing.”

“Why? They already know.”

“But see what they say when I print it all.”

“They’ll say I’m doing more good printing money than you’re doing printing the Buzzard.”

When the Buzzard came out it carried a complete story on James Brown.

Brown built a house on the west bank of the Cuyahoga. In 1825, he built on the same land a storehouse, laying in $1,200 worth of merchandise and keeping tavern in the same building.

Many men in the commerce of coal, iron, whiskey, hogs and brass awaited the opening of The Ohio Canal in 1827 to ship their cargoes, [wrote Lane] but none waited so eagerly as James Brown who was planning to ship money - in bulk.

Haven’t Brown’s neighbors, the Buzzard asked, noted that the colleagues he has assembled are very well dressed and well spoken for the operation of mere store and tavern?

Have any wondered how it is that Mr. Brown needs such impressive help in the running of a store which stocks under $2,000 in merchandise?

For your own protection, you should note the stature of the men who have taken up storekeeping in the little neighboring town of Boston. They are William G. Taylor of Cleveland; Abraham S. Holmes; Col. William Ashley of Boston; William Latta of Bath; Jonathan De Courcey and Thomas Johnson of Norton; Joshua King and Joe Keeler of Portage.

James Brown has a very able brother, Dan, who is very like him, except more handsome but less statesmanlike in crime.

These men are counterfeiters; and on a vast and damaging scale.

The next morning, Mr. Lane’s editorial office was a pile of broken glass and wood. While he was inspecting the debris a courier came up to give him “the compliments of Mr. Brown and will you meet him at Hall’s Tavern?”

Lane rode to Pittsburgh instead for a bag of type, leaving a workman to clean up the Buzzard office. When he returned in four days, the press was upright and cleaned. It was not damaged.

The courier repeated the invitation. Lane went to Hall’s Tavern. Brown greeted him from the center of a table of men without rising, but with courtesy, proffering a draft of Cuyahoga neck oil.

Lane accepted, but insisted on paying with his own coin.

“Fine, Mr. Lane. But the proprietor finds my money very acceptable,” Brown spread U.S. bank notes on the table.

“I don’t. You wanted to talk to me.”

“To tell you your paper spoke to my disadvantage, Mr. Lane, and I incline to get mad.”

“So do I, Mr. Brown. And you’re going to jail, if it takes forty years.”

“It will take longer, Mr. Lane.”

It was extremely difficult, however, because whenever Lane caused Brown to be arrested, a crowd gathered around and accompanied the genial Brown to the jail to see that he got out on bail without delay.

When Brown’s cases came to trial, they were arranged for bad weather, when possible, to prevent overcrowding. The crowds came not only to see Brown, but also because such distinguished and colorful attorneys handled his defense.

Jim Brown was eager to have his brother, Dan, come in with him on a full-time basis. But Dan was then in the lucrative business of droving horses east to Pittsburgh - other people’s horses. Jim argued with him that horses were a long roundabout way to make money. “Why go through those middle steps when we can make money direct on the press?”

A special condition of the times made the counterfeiting business especially workable and especially direct. It was an era when 40 different wildcat currencies were abroad in the west, the bank notes issued by local banks. These currencies were different colors, denominations, and discounts. Much of it would not pass at 25 percent of face value, and the actual value fluctuated day to day, even hour by hour.

Many a settler, just paid for pork he had canalled to the Cincinnati market, heard that the $400 he had received was in a tender fast falling in value. While he scurried around the waterfront trying to convert it to a more stable coinage, the $400 had turned to $100 in his hands - or to ashes. Such settlers never knew that their own frenzied effort to convert actually cut the value of their money in that immediate vicinity.

But the point is that if a counterfeit dealer was available in such moments of panic, he could easily exchange his counterfeit for legitimate currency. Of course he must make sure that the real money was worth more than his counterfeit, before trading.

Brown saw his biggest opportunity in the one currency which stood up very well any place, United States bank notes, issued by the Philadelphia branch. Naturally, these became nearly as scarce as hard money; and hardly any of them flowed west.

It was this money shortage which Mr. Brown proposed to relieve. He was determined to run a strictly quality operation. He acquired some very fine plates hardly to be distinguished from U.S. bank notes. He had good engravers and printers with him. However, to make the notes in commercial quantities, some expensive printing equipment was needed which required the sudden raising of capital. Brown always insisted on paying his bills in good money.

Now the way Brown raised good money when he needed it made him legend up and down the Cuyahoga.

Two assets particularly permitted him to do what other men only dreamed: a personal effrontery and an uncommonly powerful black horse named “Old John,” procured for him by Dan.

Brown caused to be forged a bank draft on the Bank of Pittsburgh. Being scrupulous in financial affairs, he also had it marked “certified.”

He then took five horses from his shed on the bank of the Cuyahoga and rode east at night with the string toward Pittsburgh. He dropped Old John off first at a stable in Warren. The other horses he dropped off at about 30-mile intervals, telling each hostler to feed it well, but leave the saddle on. The last horse, he rode into the Pittsburgh area.

Resting during the day, he sauntered casually into a bank late in the afternoon, and with the easy boredom of a man of large affairs he placed forged credentials before the banker along with the certified bank draft.

“It’s a large one,” the banker said. “But should be no trouble on that bank, sir. What currency you want it?”

“U.S. bank notes, if convenient. Small denominations.”

“There’ll be a twenty dollar charge as we’ll have to send an armed man when we collect from that bank.”

Brown unrolled some bills. “Very well.”

When the draft was cashed, Brown thanked the banker, and strolled casually out the door. But once the door shut behind him, casualness stripped off him like a sweater. He ran down the steps, jammed the legitimate bills into his saddlebag, untied the mare, and jumped on. His heel raked the mare’s flank as he headed her west through the cut in the Allegheny escarpment.

At Aliquippa he leaped off, threw the lines of the lathered mare to the hostler. “Get me the Virginia Red!”

The change-over was under five minutes, and he was westing toward the Cuyahoga. When he reached Warren, he was exhausted, but the giant Old John pounded the trail west. Dawn was lighting the sky when Brown crossed the Cuyahoga. He went into his shed long enough to get water for Old John and himself and to change his clothes and grab an ax.

He went back outside with the ax, over to his boundary line where he began splitting wood loudly under his neighbor’s window.

The neighbor’s wife came out and Brown asked her, “What time is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Since my clock is broken, would you go into your house and look?”

She came back out, “Half after seven, Jim.

When the extradition officers came from Pennsylvania, they talked to Brown’s neighbor’s wife who said, “It’s impossible; I remember talking to him at half after seven the next morning.”

The Pennsylvania constable mounted his horse and flapped on his hat. “It’s not him then. No horse could do it from Pittsburgh in one night.”

When Brown’s own press was operating, it turned out good quality U.S. bank notes.

Now you must understand the scope of Brown’s thinking. It was no part of his idea to go around personally handing off bogus money at the retail level. Nor would he permit his agents to do so. Instead he marketed the bills in volume, as counterfeit, to dealers at 20 percent of face value. The men who bought from Brown and from Brown’s men knew what they were buying. They almost never saw Brown, the head of “Moneyshop Hill” who seldom so much as touched a bogus bill. In his own pocket, he liked to carry genuine U.S. bank notes.

Brown’s shipments of queer went aboard canalboats northbound for New York State, southbound for New Orleans. Cargoes were substantial. He would, with some regularity, ship quantities of as much as $1,500,000.

Besides U.S. bank notes, Brown printed a considerable number of mortgages on property in eastern cities, and he printed some bonds of western states which he sold in the east.

A major part of his management ability was acquiring the plates. In addition to commissioning the finest engravings, he would sometimes steal the original plates in daring maneuvers in which he was very lucky.

Lane printed in the Buzzard: “How is it that small packages come in over the canal for Brown’s store in Boston, but only large shipments go out?”

Brown would personally set the pattern for opening a new territory. When he did, few could emulate his boldness or brilliance. To open the money market in lower Canada, he rode out of the Cuyahoga valley on Old John before the thaw one spring. He established several dealers, but Canadian law officers picked up his scent, and by the time he reached the middle of the north shore of Lake Erie, they were in full pursuit.

Brown’s escape from them and from Canada was the subject of admiring talk up and down the Cuyahoga valley for decades. The Canadians were so close behind that time was counted in heartbeats. He was heading west along Lake Erie, but he suddenly reversed and headed Old John east over thawing Canada soil for the east end of Lake Erie where it narrows. Soon he arrived at the place where he saw the spring ice break-up was beginning at the edge of open water.

He rode still eastward along the shore, picking the exact spot where he judged the ice to be thawed to just between slush and ice. Then he rode south across the breaking ice. Old John’s hooves sucked slush, and once broke through. Brown whipped him on.

Canadian officers were still testing the ice at various points when Brown crossed the U.S. border in midlake. By the time they found sufficiently firm ice for crossing, Old John and Brown were clattering up onto the United States shore near Silver Creek.

Brown’s Canadian outlets over the years dispensed several million Made-in-Boston, Ohio, dollars - U.S. bank notes of high quality, but not legally negotiable.

One of the greatest threats to Jim Brown was the dangerous admiration of his own colleagues who yielded sometimes to the temptation to brag of their leader to their drinking companions.

Except for this, he might not even have been arrested for his perfect execution of the Boston, Massachusetts, “transaction.” He had forged a very large draft on a bank there. He proceeded from Boston, Ohio, to Boston, Massachusetts, and negotiated the draft. Then he used the same trick as in the Pittsburgh “transaction”: a prearranged relay of horses to race back to Boston on the Cuyahoga. He made sure to be seen there immediately, sauntering casually down the road as church let out.

His own colleagues were so amazed that word of the feat seeped out and spread. Sam’l A. Lane sent the lead back to Massachusetts. Brown was extradited by Massachusetts authorities, taken to trial in Boston. However, the court ruled, that “With the fastest mode of travel known, no living man could have performed the journey in the time intervening between perpetration of the crime here and Mr. Brown’s thoroughly proved presence in Boston, Ohio.”

Thereafter, Ohio sheriffs riding after James Brown could put no heart into their work.

But Sam’l A. Lane pressed relentlessly. He had been able to convict many of Brown’s customers, but Brown himself had an immunity to conviction. Such crowds of admirers gathered ’round him at trials now that even judges were affected and leaned toward acquittal.

One judge summed up: “Even the prosecution concedes that Mr. Brown did not personally misrepresent to anyone that the bills were real. In fact, he aggressively stated to the purchasers that they were not real. The man who passes a spurious bill off as real is guilty. But a man who announces it is not real has not passed a counterfeit bill because his statement has stripped it of its counterfeit quality.”

Arrested and tried often, Brown still stood so high in the estimation of citizens of the Cuyahoga valley that in April 1834, they elected him Justice of the Peace of Boston. He administered this office with such authority and conscientious attention to detail that he was twice re-elected.

While he held office, it was known to all that he headed the Cuyahoga valley money syndicate. Many were in fact grateful to him for freeing the money-tight economy, not inspecting their cash too carefully. If it passed from hand to hand, what mattered?

In 1837, Samuel A. Lane, through the Buzzard, started a new editorial drive against Brown. He avoided butting head on into Brown’s born-lucky popularity by addressing his newspaper campaign not directly against Brown, but against counterfeiting in general.

The campaign was so forceful that it incited the law of three counties to go on a rampage. With a concentration like that, they were bound to apprehend dealers who bought counterfeit bills from Brown and who were inept in passing the money. Arresting the dealers led the officers to Brown’s own confederates, some of whom bought freedom by reluctantly giving information about Brown.

Brown was therefore arrested and brought to trial approximately a dozen times in the next two years. “Going to Mr. Brown’s trials” became a thing to do.

The state often had to ask for a continuance in order to assemble witnesses, letting Brown free on $10-to-$20,000 bonds. In five such cases, when the new trial date was set, the many witnesses were suddenly unavailable, missing, or relocated.

Many of Brown’s colleagues and customers were put in the penitentiary during this drive, but “Old Jim” as he was now called, remained chief of bogus banking in the west.

In the early 1840s he moved farther upriver and was elected Justice of the Peace at North Hampton in October 1845.

But in 1846, Brown’s distinguished defense attorney, Judge Rufus P. Spalding, lost an examination on a charge that Brown counterfeited coin. Judge McClure on the bench bound him over to U.S. District Court in Columbus, letting him wait at home on $20,000 bail.

The trial in Columbus, August 1, 1846, was presided over by Justice John McLean, the later admired Ohio Supreme Court justice and U.S. Postmaster General. Brown’s defense attorneys were Hon. Rufus P. Spalding and Hon. Noah M. Swayne (later U.S. Supreme Court).

Nevertheless the case went against Brown, and his sentence was ten years in prison.

The three barns which burned down in the following week had only one thing in common. They all belonged to witnesses against Brown.

In prison, Brown’s great spirit shrank like a caged eagle. Yet his commanding presence even there won him the respect of the officers and prisoners. Within a few months, he was made file leader of the first platoon in the lockstep march of the prisoners between dining hall and shops.

Sheriff Lane who had worked hard for Brown’s arrest and conviction went to visit the prison. It shocked him to see how gaunt and unsmiling the giant had become.

Mr. Brown was later given special charge of the prison hospital. While he held that responsibility, cholera broke out. Brown was a bulwark of strength, in constant motion day and night nursing sick prisoners. The prison officials credited him with personally saving scores of lives.

His work was so dramatic that prison officers assisted Brown’s only daughter, Laura, in forwarding a request for a pardon for Brown. President Zachary Taylor granted the pardon and Mr. Brown walked free July 22, 1849, after two years and 11 months in jail.

But once out of jail, Brown’s property was dissipated and Lane had jailed and scattered most of his gang. He was forced to a lower level of operations. Going downhill, Brown was finally arrested and convicted on a lowly charge of passing a counterfeit bill.

In the years following, he was in and out of jail on counterfeiting charges.

While serving one three-year term, he had a visitor, Sam’l A. Lane, ex-sheriff and ex-editor of the Buzzard.

Brown did not rise. “It’s too early for the buzzards. I’m not dead yet.”

Awkwardly, Lane explained his mission was to open negotiations for the publication of Brown’s biography to be written by Lane with Brown’s help, the profits to be equally divided.

Brown’s handsome, shaggy head went back in laughter. The black hair was salted with gray, but still thick. The voice was grainy and vibrant, “I’m your whole life, aren’t I, Lane?”

Lane walked to the gate and signaled for the guard.

“Lane!” Brown had risen. “I’ll let you write my story on one condition. You spent your life getting me in here. Now if you want to write my story, get me pardoned.”

They stared at each other many seconds.

Finally Lane turned and trudged out of the cell.