A fascinating slice of true-crime history that unfolds in 1695, when law enforcement was unheard of and modern money was little more than a concept
When renowned scientist Isaac Newton took up the post of Warden of His Majesty’s Mint in London, another kind of genius—a preternaturally gifted counterfeiter named William Chaloner—had already taken up residence in the city, rising quickly in an unruly, competitive underworld. In the courts and streets of London, and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by ideas Newton himself had set in motion, Chaloner crosses paths with the formidable new warden. An epic game of cat and mouse ensues in Newton and the Counterfeiter, revealing for the first time that Newton was not only one of the greatest minds of his age, but also a remarkably intrepid investigator.
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In 1695, Isaac Newton--already renowned as the greatest mind of his age--made a surprising career change. He left quiet Cambridge, where he had lived for thirty years and made his earth-shattering discoveries, and moved to London to take up the post of Warden of His Majesty's Mint. Newton was preceded to the city by a genius of another kind, the budding criminal William Chaloner. Thanks to his preternatural skills as a counterfeiter, Chaloner was rapidly rising in London's highly competitive underworld, at a time when organized law enforcement was all but unknown and money in the modern sense was just coming into being. Then he crossed paths with the formidable new warden. In the courts and streets of London--and amid the tremors of a world being transformed by the ideas Newton himself had set in motion--the two played out an epic game of cat and mouse.
Q: Why did you decide to write Newton and the Counterfeiter?
A: I first encountered the connection at the heart of Newton and the Counterfeiter when I was working on a very different project in the mid '90s. A long out of print book quoted from one of the few letters between my counterfeiter, William Chaloner, and Isaac Newton--and on reading it I wondered: what on earth was such a scoundrel doing in correspondence with the greatest mind of the age? The question stuck with me for a decade, and finally I made the time to dig a little deeper. Once I did, I discovered two things that made this book both possible, and from a writer's point of view, inescapable. The first was a trove of original documents that chronicled Newton's involvement in the pursuit and prosecution of not just Chaloner, but dozens of other currency criminals. The second was the insight this one story gives into Newton himself--and of the real extent and impact of the revolutions (plural deliberate) which he so prominently led. Isaac Newton is best remembered, of course, as the man at the vanguard of the scientific revolution--a status established by his discoveries: the laws of motion, gravity, the calculus, and much more. But I found that this story gave me a sense of what it was like to live through that revolution at street level. It provided an example of Newton's mind at work, for one, and for another, it involved Newton in the second of the great 17th century transformations, the financial revolution that occurred in conjunction, and with some connection to the scientific one.
Newton, I found, was a bureaucrat, a man with a job running England's money supply at a time with surprising parallels to our own: new, poorly understood financial engineering to deal with what was a national currency and economic crisis. He was asked to think about money, and he did--and at the same time, he was given the job of Warden of the Mint, which among other duties put him charge of policing those who would fake or undermine the King's coins. So there I had it: a gripping true crime story, with life-and-death stakes and enough information to follow my leading characters through the bad streets and worse jails of London--and one that at the same time let me explore some of critical moves in the making of the world we inhabit through the mind and feelings of perhaps the greatest scientific thinker who ever lived. How could I resist that?
Q: Are there comparisons to be made to the financial times we are living in today in this country?
A: When I started writing this book, (c. 2005) the American and the global economy was seemingly in robust health. The American housing market was booming; financial markets the world over were trading happily back and forth, the Dow in June, when I started working in earnest on the project, stood comfortably over 10,000, with a 40% rise to come through the first and second drafts of the work. And then, of course, things changed--and by that time (too late to do my own financial situation any good) I realized that in the story of Newton's confrontation with Chaloner I could see many of the pathologies that define our current predicament. England's currency and its system of high finance--the big loans and big banks behind them needed to fund government--were both under increasing strain when Newton arrived at the Mint.
Part of the damage was being done through imbalances of trade, as silver flowed out of England to the European continent and ultimately to India and China. (Sound familiar?) That loss of metal had huge economic consequences when you remember that money itself was made of silver back then. No silver, no coins. No coins--and how are you going to buy a loaf of bread, a pound of beef, a barrel of beer (which was a staple, and not a luxury given the state of London’s drinking (sic) water). At the same time, England was waging a war it could not pay for. (Sound familiar?) The Treasury was broke. Financial engineering got its start in the ever more desperate attempts by the government to raise the money it needed to keep its army in the field against France. Newton and his counterfeiting nemesis William Chaloner both found themselves operating on unfamiliar territory, with paper abstractions standing in for what used to be literally hard cash. This was when bank notes were invented--and Chaloner forged some. This was when the government began to issue what were in essence bonds--and Chaloner forged some of those too. Personal cheques were coming in, and--you guessed it--Chaloner passed a couple of duds. Most significantly, the Bank of England invented fractional reserve lending--lending out a multiple of the actual cash reserves it held at any one time. This was the birth of leverage. Put it all together and you have most of the crucial ideas in modern finance appearing at almost the same instant. These are fantastically useful tools; the enormous expansion of wealth, of material comfort, of human well being that we’ve seen over the last three centuries, derives in part from the fact that the English and their trading counterparties were so impressively inventive in those decades. But at the same time, as we know now all too well, each and every one of those financial ideas are capable of abuse. Now add to the usual temptations to financial sin the besetting danger of ignorance, of the sheer unfamiliarity of the new instruments, and you have the makings of an almost inevitable disaster.
In 2009, we are dealing with that double trouble: deliberate frauds combining with the larger problem that the complexity and sheer deep strangeness of new financial products allowed a lot of so-called smart money to make big bets they didn’t understand. Exactly the same kinds of pressures were building in Newton's day, and the financial crisis that Newton helped resolve in the 1690s kept spawning sequels, until in the 1720s, Newton himself got caught up in a disaster that in many ways eerily anticipates the one we are living through now. The South Sea Bubble of 1720 was born of a good idea--what we would now call a debt-for-equity swap--but rapidly turned into a fraud and then at the last a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. What I found most striking is that Newton, who of all men had the mathematical chops to figure out that the South Sea promises couldn't possibly be met, still got sucked in by the promise of outsize returns. Avarice, desire, or perhaps in Newton's case just the agony of the thought that others were getting richer while he was not, propelled him into investing in the bubble at its very peak. According to his niece, he lost 20,000 pounds in a matter of months--which in today’s money would be roughly three million pounds, or close to five million dollars. The moral, at least the lesson I took from this personally? No one, not even Newton, and certainly not me, is smart enough to be smarter than one's own emotions. And that grim fact, as much as any specific financial innovation, lies behind our current economic woes, and surely caught that great thinker Isaac Newton in its grip as well.
Q: Tell us about your research.
A: I was fortunate in this project--in fact, I only took on the book--because there was a rich lode of little-known documents that told the story of the clash between Newton and Chaloner. Five large folders survive of Newton's own notes, drafts and memos covering his official duties at the Mint. Examining them, especially drafts of replies to some of Chaloner's most audacious attacks on him at Parliamentary hearings, it is possible to see across time to Newton's mounting frustration and anger at his antagonist: his handwriting gets worse, more cramped, swift, and in general ticked off as he works through his responses. I was also able to find the handful of documents that can be unequivocally attributed to Chaloner: a couple of pamphlets he had printed to display his expertise in the making and manipulation of coin, and to allege incompetence, or worse at Newton's Mint. To that I added a marvelous, if not entirely reliable, moralizing biography of Chaloner, hastily written and published within days of his execution. That was one of the early examples of what became a staple pulp genre--edifying and titillating accounts of the wicked, in which any admiration for the rascals being chronicled were carefully wrapped up through the appropriate bad ends to which all the subjects of such works were doomed.
But of all the wellsprings of this book, none were more important than the file it took me over a year to find. I knew that some of the records Isaac Newton's criminal interrogations survived, because I found reference to them in a couple of the older biographies and other secondary sources. But in the reorganization of British official records that took place in the decades after World War II, the cataloguing systems for Mint files had undergone enough changes that this crucial set of documents had slipped out of sight of the contemporary Newton scholarly community. I managed to track it down to its current location in the Public Records Office, and then I had writer's gold: more than four hundred separate documents, most countersigned by Newton himself, that allowed me to retrace his steps as a criminal investigator informer by informer. Most fortunately--Newton’s nephew-in-law reported that he helped his wife's uncle burn many of his Mint interrogation records. But the entire Chaloner case remained in the one surviving folder, and it made for fascinating, gripping reading. Once Newton realized how formidable an opponent he had in Chaloner, he proved relentless in reconstructing not just particular crimes, but the whole architecture of counterfeiting and coining as it was practiced in London in the 1690s. You get to see, smell, hear how the bad guys worked, in their own words, as elicited by a man who (surprise!) proved to be exceptionally good at extracting the evidence he needed to solve a problem.
(Photo © Joel Benjamin)
THOMAS LEVENSON is a professor of science writing at MIT and the author of three previous books: Einstein in Berlin, Measure for Measure, and Ice Time. He is also the producer of ten documentaries for which he has won numerous awards.
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