Point in History: March 1896
By Kris Leonhardt
In March of 1896, George Leonard stood before the courtroom reliving the past year of his life. After taking over his family’s grocery store at 431 Clark Street in Stevens Point, he had assumed a life of convenience that few would have realized in the early days of our country.
Within months of his new proprietorship, Leonard had received a letter from a group of men operating out of New York. The men had an offer for Leonhard; one which though quite illegal, promised Leonard a return that he could not decline. Leonard began to put away every penny from his business that he could squander.
As the letter had promised, an agent came to call on Leonard in October. Meeting at the upscale Curran House, the pair discretely discussed the arrangement.
There, the agent made claims that his associates were in the possession of stolen government plates, which were able to create counterfeit money that could fool even the most trained eye. He followed up his claims with an offer to sell Leonard some of the “green goods,” sight unseen.
With a payout of $5 to $1, the offer intrigued Leonard, who was game for a winning gamble; however, he would need the goods now.
The agent was agreeable to Leonard’s request and made arrangements for the pair to meet in Oshkosh the next day, where his “associate” would make on-site delivery of the green goods.
When Leonard arrived at the Oshkosh hotel the following day, both men were waiting for him. Leonard presented the men with nearly $1,500 in cash for exchange.
After counting the money, the agents sealed the envelope, wrote Leonard’s name on it, and handed it back to him. He was then given instructions to meet another partner at an Oshkosh saloon, where the transaction would take place.
Leonard waited in the saloon the entire afternoon. As it neared time for him to board the train, he headed to the depot.
Arriving back in Stevens Point, Leonard opened the envelope. Pulling out a stack of plain paper where his money used to be, he realized that he had been duped.
The loss of the money taken from his business, placed a heavy strain on Leonard’s store finances. As liabilities mounted, court action was taken, and Leonard’s grasp on his business slipped away. Within a year, the store would be closed.
The “Green Goods Game” was an intricate aspect of the New York City underworld in the 19th Century. Though there were daily reminders of the scam in local newspapers around the country, gangs of men continued to deceive people into paying for worthless or non-existent counterfeit money for several decades.
Many cases went unreported, due to the illegality of the transaction. Inspectors were installed within the U.S. postal system, catching many of the scammers circling the country selling green goods.
Kris Leonhardt may be reached at [email protected].