Almost a year ago we had found the counterfeiters den that had been lost for close to 100 years. We promised that we would share the full story behind the Den once our research was complete. Though the story is still not complete and there is much more research to be done, we felt we would share how much we have so far. We have withheld names and particular details of the story because we are currently working with members of the local government to protect it. We confirmed that the den is on private property and we are trying to arrange a conservation easement. For now, the den should be considered off limits. Soon we hope to meet with the land owners to begin discussions. We hope to develop a good relationship with them so that the den can be protected and possibly accessible in the future.
The History of “The Lost Counterfeiters Den”
In the fall of 2012, Ms Dreadful and I decided to turn our attention back to our long-term project of hunting down seldom-visited or long-forgotten caves in New England. We had accumulated a long list of caves by digging through our library of historic books and documents, and many visits to the local historical archives. This year we read about a cave that we had seen mentioned in the past. We had been involved in another project and neglected to make note of it. To avoid repeating the same mistake, we thought now was the best time to act.
At a rocky ridge on the south side of a ravine, deep in the forests of the New England, a band of counterfeiters were forging coins. Tradition says that at this same location there was a small cave they used to hide their tools and money. The cave was known by locals as Counterfeiters’ Den, and the last time it had been visited was the early 1920s. This cave was entered from above through a triangular opening that could be hidden by a rock slab that fit the opening. With little effort, it could be so well concealed in the forest landscape that only the men of this unscrupulous enterprise would ever be aware of its existence.
Since the late 1800s many stories concerning the Counterfeiters’ Den have been published. Most of them spoke of it as being difficult or impossible to find. Since each story placed it at different locations several miles apart, and that it was naturally masked by the forest features, we could understand why it was now lost. We knew that before venturing out into the forest, it would serve us well to spend the next month reviewing and discussing the data we had, and look for other possible clues.
Counterfeiting is a crime that is as old as money and though the penalties in colonial New England were harsh, it still flourished. Many adopted this nefarious trade due to extreme poverty or temporary financial difficulty. Others, like Gilbert Belcher, succumbed to temptation out of pure greed. Belcher said in his dying speech, “No gain afforded me so much pleasure as that which I acquired by illicit means.”
The people involved in counterfeiting came from many careers and social classes. Those directly involved in milling of the coins and bills were often from trades requiring the skills needed for counterfeiting. Though most had no worry of being suspected, those that actually produced the false money had good reason to conceal their reprehensible activities. Often they constructed huts in the deep forest of New England for this purpose.
The criminal records of Connecticut mentions of an incident concerning a gang of counterfeiters that operated in the late 1700s. They were part of an underground network of counterfeiters in the northeast. The creation of this enterprise began when they had been approached by a man from Cohass, New Hampshire. Cohass was the home of Glazier Wheeler, a counterfeiter known for providing stamps, plates and milling machines for gangs throughout the northern colonies. Though at this time he was in jail, one of his cohorts continued his work. He had noticed the advantage of a frontier location close to tri-state border of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. From this spot, a hooligan would be able to elude justice by moving back and forth across borders, a common practice. This man enticed several locals from Connecticut to join him in counterfeiting coins.
For a time, the manufacture of the silver monies took place at hut constructed deep in the forest alongside King’s Pond. They replicated English shillings and Spanish milled eight reales that were either made of a silver plated copper or an amalgam. Though well hidden from the townspeople, in 1786 they became concerned with detection, and removed the business to a more secluded spot.
Again the counterfeiters constructed a hut in which to perform their unlawful arts. Not far from their new hideout was a small cave. The entrance to the cave was triangular, measuring about 34 by 38 by 49 inches, and found on top of a granite ledge near a swamp. Natural actions had pried free a large portion of the ridge at its conclusion. As the base of this behemoth slid into the swamp below, its top rested against the remaining ridge. Over time, rocks, boulders and forest debris filled the narrow fissure at the surface, leaving only a small opening. Peering inside, they discovered a chamber approximately 17 feet long, 5 feet wide, 5 feet high and large enough to fit three or more men. They quickly recognized how this could be a great benefit to them. The stone slab they placed over the opening appeared as a natural feature of the forest floor. Now when not milling the coins they could secret their forged coins and tools in the cave. If anyone should happen upon their hut, they would not find anything that would incriminate the crooks.
The counterfeiters distanced themselves from the passing of forged dollars by using local agents. Members of predominant local families became some of their key accomplices. They moved large amounts of coins without detection through the purchase of horses in Canada. Many other members of the community became involved too. Good silver money was obtained from devious persons to manufacture the bogus monies. One good dollar was exchanged for a number of spurious coins.
For many years they operated successfully from the hut and den. When talking about the cave in the presence of strangers they referred to it as Newport. Hiding their tools and coins in the den kept people from suspecting them. Their enterprise appeared to be flawless and brought large profit to many involved. It wasn’t until 1795 that they were caught by a 12 year old boy named Zadoc. He stumbled on counterfeiters’ hut while they were in the process of milling coins. To convince Zadoc not to reveal their dealings, they persuaded him to join their gang. Though this seemed like a good idea at the time, it would lead to their downfall.
Like others involved, Zadoc began to trade the fraudulent milled dollars across state lines. He used the coins to purchase produce and livestock. If he was caught passing the coins, townspeople would likely see a young rustic like him as a fellow victim instead of a member of a counterfeiting gang. Those who did suspect Zadoc quietly connived in his actions.
It appeared as if Zadoc had become a successful member of the gang until he was intoxicated by his sudden wealth. He started to treat friends and some patrons at several stores and taverns, and paid with new Spanish silver dollars. Unprecedented spending by a young boy of meager means aroused much suspicion. When they noticed that all of his money appeared new and had the same date, his follies lead to an investigation and his arrest. As a town historian said, “The goose that laid the golden egg committed suicide in this instance.”
Zadoc avoided trial by forfeiting all his forged money, and enlightening the authorities about the operation taking place in the deep forest. Those directly involved in the counterfeiting were arrested and brought before a justice. The other accomplices in the surrounding communities went into hiding until the search subsided. The cave was searched and the counterfeiters’ tools and coins were found and used in court.
Eventually no conviction was made. The leader of the gang was cool and shrewd. When brought to court, he played the role of an innocent man well. His cunning was exhibited when the die and hammer was placed in his hands and he was asked to strike a blow to demonstrate his skill. Seizing the opportunity, he swung the hammer to land clumsily onto the die. His excellent performance and the uneven coin produced was enough to convince many of his innocence. Those aware of his craftiness asked that the trial continue. Further questioning revealed that many members of prominent families across many communities were involved. Soon the questioning became much less rigorous and the trial seemed a charade. Eventually the prosecution ceased and the prisoners were released. Though the gang escaped punishment for their crimes, there was a stain on their reputations for the rest of their lives.
This did not end the activity at the den. A few years later, a larger gang engaged in counterfeiting bank notes at the same location. In this case the members not only were caught but also were found guilty and handed a long prison sentence.
In February of 2013 Ms Dreadful and I felt prepared to make our first attempt to find the den. Though each story placed it in different locations, we had discovered one very detailed account we felt was reliable. We grabbed our gear and hiked out to the best site from which to start. The hike was easy until we had to turn off trail, and into the thicket-filled forest. Slowly we weaved and dodged our way through only to be greeted by disappointment. We arrived at the swamp finding there wasn’t enough bedrock for the den to occupy. Scouring our way north along the swamps edge, we found nothing.
Though it was late in the day we decided to make a run to the second search site. This area was south of us and across a portion of the swamp. Fortunately most of the swamp was frozen and negotiable. Carefully we navigated from stump to stump and gingerly shuffled over fallen trees. As we reached the other side, I spotted a ledge to our west. Perched over the swamp, was a ridge of foliated granite with narrow fissure along its side. In my excitement I announced, “That looks like a good spot to find the den!” I ran to its top side expecting to see an opening, but only discovered scattered boulders and the forest floor. I circled around the ledge and to the edge of the swamp and still finding nothing.
Ready to call it a day, I started back to where Ms Dreadful was waiting, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a hole in the ground. If I had not approached it from the swamp below, I would never have seen it lying under the forest debris. It was so small I assumed it was just an animal den. Though I couldn’t imagine it was the Counterfeiters’ Den, I thought it might be good to just take a look. As I moved the leaves and shined a light into the hole, I saw its interior was extraordinarily large. Moving the forest debris surrounding the hole, I found a large rock to its left. I still couldn’t believe this could be the den, but thought that if I could lift the rock, maybe it was. My first tug was met by resistance. Determined, I applied a bit more force and gave it a second tug. Suddenly I felt the release of the ground’s frozen grip. Slowly the slab lifted revealing a triangular opening into a large chamber below. Ms Dreadful and I sat staring into the darkness of the den in complete disbelief. Our shock was soon followed by an excitement like children on Christmas morning.
Along the edge of the opening we noticed fieldstones placed to reduce it size and create a level surface for the slab to rest on. We dropped down into the narrow den to see it quickly widened to 5 feet. From the entrance the floor sloped down to create a comfortable height inside. As I shined the light, checking for any animals, I began to visualize what it must have looked like in the late 1700s; blacksmith tools neatly place against the wall along with sacks of coins and metals waiting to be hammered into shiny new pieces of eight. Though we did not find any artifacts from the counterfeiters, we did see the den was still in use. In its center was animal scat. Searching the den, we found a back entrance that would give easy access for fox or possum. Quickly we took some photos and measurements to confirm they matched those we found in the records. Though we wanted to stay longer, it was late and time to hike out.
Our research on the den and counterfeiting in New England is in no way complete. We are still working to build a record of its history and there are still many details that need to be filled in. It is possible that the den was used by other counterfeiting gangs dating back to the early 1700s. Also, during our investigation we have uncovered the mention of several other subterranean workshops whose locations have also been forgotten. Though we don’t expect to be as lucky, we’ll enjoy the hunt.
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