The story of Pete McCartney reads like a crime thriller… but it’s not fiction.
In 1864, after getting caught forging up to $100,000 in phony bologna, an infamous Indianapolis counterfeiter was on his way to Washington D.C. to meet justice. His arms and legs were shackled, and guards were everywhere, so he sat and he waited. When the timing was just right and the train was moving 35 mph, he ran to the back of the train and leapt into the night. They stopped the train to search – surely he couldn’t have survived – but he was gone.
Rewind to Illinois in the mid 1820s. McCartney was a quiet, intelligent little boy who grew into a crafty teenager. He started working for counterfeiters before the Civil War, where he learned the art of engraving and quickly proved to be amazingly skilled. He was so talented that he was introduced to more counterfeiters and soon became known for forging higher-value funny money instead of just $1 bills, which were the most common fakes.
Tall, handsome, and charming, the best forger in the Midwest fell in love with a fellow felonious engraver’s daughter, Martha Ackerman, and they were soon married. In the second half of the Civil War, as soon as the federal government issued the first “greenback” bills, counterfeiting skyrocketed, and McCartney and his partners amassed a fortune in legitimate money by passing phony tens and twenties for change.
So many businessmen had left their posts to join the war that no one was the wiser, except the group that would eventually become the official Secret Service, charged with seeking out counterfeiters. In 1864, the agents caught McCartney and his partners at the post office, where most of their counterfeit cash filtered through lawful channels.
But alas, Pete McCartney didn’t feel like going to prison. On the Penn-Central train headed for the capital he decided he “didn’t like the look of the arrangement,” so he made an escape worthy of the movies and fled, injured but alive, into the woods to wait for the next opportunity to flee. He eventually smashed his bonds with rocks, then slowly made his way to allies and to safety.
McCartney’s foolhardy and dramatic escape was the straw that broke the United States Treasury’s back. In his last act as president, Abraham Lincoln signed off on making the Secret Service into an official entity.
This act of daring-do was McCartney’s first, but not his last. In a long game of cat and mouse with the Secret Service, he broke out of jail several times, once even paying a gloating visit to the Chief of the Secret Service at his home post-breakout, only to be returned to his cell. He eluded permanent capture for another decade, but eventually was jailed for keeps until his death.