The first paper currency in the New England colonies, known as "Bills of Credit" were issued by Massachusetts about the time of King William's War. Rhode Island and Connecticut soon followed with issues of their own. These rather crudely engraved bills were easily counterfeited by the use of copper plates. Counterfeiters who were caught were easily indicted when the copper plates were discovered in their possession. The usual punishment for the crime of counterfeiting was either a fine or to have one's ears cropped.
Little is known about Mary Peck Butterworth until 1716 when she presumably began counterfeiting the £5 bills of credit issued by Rhode Island the previous year. (There are no existing court records which show that she was ever convicted for this crime. All the records in this case are of unproven charges.)
Mary was the daughter of one of the most influential first families of Rehoboth, Massachusetts and related, both by blood and through her marriage to nearly every other first family. She was born at Rehoboth on July 27, 1686, the first child among four daughters and five sons of Joseph3 (Nicholas2, Joseph1) Peck, an innkeeper, and Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Ensign Henry and Elizabeth (Cooper) Smith. Mary's early history is unknown, but she appears on the record books when she married John4 (John3, John2, Henry1) Butterworth, Jr. on March 1, 1710/11. John was a skilled housewright who employed at least two carpenters to help him, so the couple was well off financially.
Why this young, married, Puritan woman began a life of crime in what would be considered a man's field is unknown. But Mary was so successful that she became probably the biggest counterfeiter in New England. Mary ingeniously invented a method of making counterfeit bills of credit without using a copper plate which could've been used as evidence against her. Nicholas Campe, the only accomplice who ever confessed, said that she placed a piece of "fine watter starched musoline" on a genuine bill "& So Pucked out the Letters upon said musoline," which was then pressed on a piece of blank paper. A hot iron was probably used to pick transfer the image from the muslin to clean paper. Using crow quill pens of various widths, Mary was able to further heighten the image of the bill into an almost perfect duplicate of a genuine bill. The only incriminating evidence, a small piece of starched muslin and small piece of paper, could easily be burned in the fireplace.
At first she relied on her relatives, especially for the actual counterfeiting. Her brother Nicholas was the first of the group to be arrested for passing a bogus bill, though the grand jury would not indict him and he was acquitted in Newport, RI, September, 1716. Unperturbed by this event, Mary continued to expand her illegal operations for several more years. Her kitchen was her workshop, her babies around her. Her most important assistants were her brother Israel Peck, who made the pens and filled in part of the ornamental designs before she finished the lettering of the bills, and Hannah Peck, Nicholas' wife, and also a cousin, who became her equal in penmanship.
The bills were passed by a growing number of Rehoboth people. Beginning with several Pecks, the circle enlarged to at least a dozen, including even Daniel Smith, town clerk and justice of the Bristol County Court of General Sessions. The passers bought counterfeits from Mary Butterworth for half the face value in genuine money, a price apparently warranted by the high quality of her work. Each £5/00 counterfeit bill she made sold for £2/10 in genuine bills, just half price. Eventually she supplied eight types of bills: Province of Massachusetts Bay, £5/00, £3/00 and 40s.; Colony of Rhode Island, £5/00, £3/00, 20s. and 10s.; and Colony of Connecticut £5/00. Nicholas Campe alone passed over £300 worth of these phony bills.
Some of the profit presumably went into the new house which John Butterworth built for his wife in 1722. By that year, however, suspicions were abroad in the neighborhood. The uninvolved justices of the Bristol court, apparently led by Nathaniel Byfield, sent the sheriff to search Daniel Smith's house. Of course, no plates were found. Nor did any of Mary's accomplices break under interrogation until August 1723, when Nicholas Campe confessed before Governor Samuel Cranston in Newport, RI. In Massachusetts, Byfield upon seeing Campe's deposition immediately ordered the arrest of Mary Butterworth, her husband and five others and authorized the search of their houses for evidence. Mary was in jail at Bristol on August 15, 1723 on the charge of being "vehemently suspected to be guilty of making counterfeiting and Uttering the Bills of Public Credit of yet Several Gouvernments in New England, Perticulery the Bills of his Majties Province of the Massachusetts Bay and Colony of Road-Island."
Charges were quickly dropped against Nicholas Peck and John Butterworth, but the others were presented to the grand jury at the ensuing "Court of Assize & General Gaol Delivery" at Bristol. The accused produced depositions impugning Campe's confessions; and since no tangible evidence existed and nobody else betrayed the ring, the grand jury on September 10 refused to indict Israel Peck and Mary Butterworth, whereupon the court freed them from jail and dropped charges against the rest as well.
Protected by numerous closed-mouthed relatives, Mary Butterworth returned to the obscurity of a respectable housewife - and presumably stopped making bogus bills. Clearly, Mary Peck Butterworth was the most clever counterfeiter of her time. There is no record of any other man or woman counterfeiter at this period in New England who ever continued operations for seven years without being convicted and sentenced. Aside from the birth of the last two of her seven children - twin boys born October 1725 - nothing is known of her long life after her release. Her husband, John Butterworth died in 1771 at age 93. Mary Butterworth lived to be eighty-nine and died of old age in Rehoboth.
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See lineage of Butterworth Family
Read the Biography of Mary's husband's great grandfather, Henry Butterworth
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