The counterfeiter Emerich Juettner, also known as Edward Mueller, who lived near Broadway and West 96th Street in Manhattan, eluded authorities from 1938 to 1948, longer than any other moneymaker in American history.
The first 63 years of Juettner's life were quite respectable. Short, blue-eyed, white-haired, mustachioed, and with a winning (if toothless) grin, Juettner had learned the rudiments of photoengraving in his native Austria. After immigrating to America at 13, he worked as a building superintendent while tinkering with numerous unsuccessful inventions. With his children grown, the newly widowed Juettner retired in 1937 to the Upper West Side, where he lived with his mongrel terrier. He worked as a junkman, picking up discarded appliances and old tires from vacant lots with a pushcart. But he wasn't bringing in enough cash to live on and soon found himself nearing destitution. So, using his engraving skills, he photographed a dollar bill and transferred the images onto sensitized zinc plates, which he then etched in an acid bath. With a little retouching and a small hand press, he was ready to make more money by, well, making more money.
The U.S. Secret Service, which has chased counterfeiters since 1865 (protecting presidents became part of their mission only in 1901), first noticed Juettner's activity when a phony $1 silver certificate turned up at a cigar store on Broadway near 102nd Street. Even as the agency opened a new case file, numbered 880, agents felt everything about the bill was unusual. No one in recent times had considered singles worth the trouble to fake. More importantly, the bill was an obvious, laughably bad replica. While American currency was printed on 75% cotton and 25% linen stock, with red and blue fibers of various lengths embedded in the paper, Juettner had used cheap bond paper from some corner store. The numbers were fuzzy, many of the letters were misshapen or illegible, and Washington's portrait was, as the Secret Service itself reported, "poorly executed ... Washington's right shoulder blends with the oval background ... the left eye is represented by a black spot ... the right eye is almond-shaped."
The bogus bills kept appearing. Those that could be traced had gone through the subway and elevated lines, and newspaper vendors, bartenders, and other small businesses that handled hundreds, if not thousands, of singles daily. Juettner carefully passed his forgeries only at busy times, such as rush hour on the subway: A 5 cent fare paid with a phony dollar yielded a 95-cent profit. And, as the Secret Service later learned, Juettner never spent a fake in the same store twice and passed only one or two bills a day.
By December 1939, File 880 contained some 600 counterfeits. The printing grew worse with time. While touching up his plates, Juettner misspelled the president's name as "Wahsington." Nonetheless, he kept his home press running throughout World War II - despite successive Treasury publicity campaigns. Apparently many who found themselves the owners of Juettner counterfeits held onto them as souvenirs rather than turning them over to the government.
By 1947, the Secret Service had collected more than $5,000 in Juettner currency. Yet, despite what New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway called "a manhunt that exceeded in intensity and scope any other manhunt in the chronicles of counterfeiting," despite thousands of interviews and hundreds of thousands of fliers, the agency didn't have a clue to his identity.
A few weeks before Christmas 1947, Juettner's apartment caught fire. New York's Bravest, in extinguishing the blaze, piled the old man's junk in an alley where a sudden snowstorm buried it. The homeless old man stayed in Queens with his daughter while his apartment was being repaired. On January 13, 1948, several neighborhood youths noticed about 30 strange-looking $1 bills lying about the alley. Unlike countless businessmen who had accepted them as payment, the kids instantly realized the bills were phony. One of their parents took some to the West 100th Street station house, where detectives identified them as counterfeit. The Secret Service quickly identified the tenant whose singed furnishings had been dumped in the alley and arrested Juettner when he returned to his apartment a few days later.
Juettner had succeeded because he passed no more bogus singles than necessary for his survival, only knocking off a few bills whenever he needed food or help paying his $25 monthly rent. Blandly admitting everything, Juettner was sentenced to a year and a day and, ironically, fined $1. He was released after four months to live with his daughter and her family. After McKelway profiled him in the New Yorker, 20th Century Fox filmed "Mr. 880" with Edmund Gwenn, renowned as Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street," in the title role. Juettner made more money from the film than he had as a counterfeiter.