Story in One Sentence
One man. One plan. One dollar.
Edward Mueller is the most prolific and sought-after counterfeiter in
American history. Dozens of agents have been working in vain for ten years
to find him. He is known only by his Treasury Department file number:
Mister 880. What is his masterpiece of counterfeit art, his bill of
choice? Is it is the one hundred dollar bill? No. The fifty? No. The
twenty? No. The ten? No. The five? No. Surely not… surely not the one
dollar bill? Yep.
the late summer of 1938, an elderly widower named Edward Mueller found
that he was in need of money for the support of his dog and himself. He
was a man of simple tastes, and the dog was an undemanding mongrel
terrier. Mr. Mueller had for many years been a superintendent in apartment
buildings on the upper East Side. Living in the basements of these
buildings, he and his wife had raised two children, a boy and a girl. By
the time Mrs. Mueller died, in 1937, the children had grown up and gone
off to homes of their own. The son had a job and was doing well; the
daughter had married.
After the death of his wife, Mueller moved out of the basement and rented
a small, sunny flat on the top floor of a tenement near Broadway and
Ninety-sixth Street. Mueller tried for a while to make a living as a
junkman. He was sixty-three at that time and was gentle, sweet-tempered,
and strongly independent. Only five feet three inches tall, he had a lean,
hard-muscled frame, a healthy pink face, bright blue eyes, a shiny bald
dome, a fringe of snowy hair over his ears, a wispy white mustache and
hardly any teeth. He was able to sell some of the odds and ends he picked
up to wholesale junk dealers, but before many months had gone by, he began
to realize that he wasn’t making enough to live on, and that if he didn’t
do better his savings would soon be gone and he would be destitute.
The life he had lived had been a respectable and law-abiding one.
Everybody who had ever known Mueller would have said that he was probably
the last man in the world to try to make money dishonestly. That was
exactly what Mueller did, however. In November, 1938, he became a
counterfeiter of one-dollar bills. When he needed cash, he stepped into
his kitchen and turned some out on a small, hand-driven printing press he
had set up in a comer next to the sink. Then, with his pushcart and his
dog, he would go out into the streets, pick up his odds and ends of junk,
and pass one or two of his counterfeit bills. For ten years, he passed
them, dividing them equitably among the storekeepers of his own
neighborhood and storekeepers in other neighborhoods around New York.
During that period, the United States Secret Service conducted a manhunt
for Mueller that exceeded in intensity and scope any other manhunt in the
chronicles of counterfeiting. The Secret Service called him Mr. Eight
Eighty, and then Old Mr. Eight Eighty, after the number of the file kept
on him at Secret Service Headquarters, in Washington, for in those years
they knew him only by the bills he passed.