BULL STREET - The art of the Con

A Brief History of Forgery

It seems that the best available definition of forgery is simply, “The making, drawing, or altering a document with the intent to defraud. If you were to copy the same document without attempting to commit a crime, it would probably be ok, indeed, a compliment of sorts.Although there are probably other ways of describing the crime of forgery, the definition above which comes from Black’s Law, seems to be short and sweet and seems to cover all of the bases.

“The Modern Penal Code (MPC sec. 224.1) states that a person is guilty of forgery if:

1.                                           actor or person alters any writing of any person, makes, completes, executes, authenticates, issues, or transfers any writing so that it purports to be an act of another who did not authorize the act or to have been at the time or place or in a numbered sequence other than was in fact the case, or to be a copy of an original when no such original existed; or

2.                                           Utters any writing which he knows to be forged.

"Forgery is a crime when it includes the representation of handwriting of another and the act of uttering as true and genuine any forged writing knowing the same to be forged with intent to prejudice, damage, and defraud any person." State v. May 93 Idaho 343, 461 P. 2d 126, 129.

"Crime of forgery is committed when one makes or passes a false instrument with the intent to defraud, and the element of loss or detriment is immaterial." People v. McAffey, 182 Cal. App.2d 486, 6 Cal. Rptr. 333,337

"The false making of an instrument, which purports on the face of it to be good and valid for purposes for which it was created, with design to defraud any person or persons."[78]

The penalty for forgery has changed dramatically over the course of our civilization and until a cleaver brand of criminals started to mint their own currency in competition with their soverign government, making one object look exactly like another was not considered to be seriously appalling. However, with the counterfeiting of money came the forgery of words and art. The most dramatic forgeries of words were created in the name of religion. The altered  words were used by religious institutions to insure their own claim to be the “only” religion and quotations were created to back up those ideas. Moreover, contracts were forged in the name of religion to give the “Church” more political power, increased domain and more control over the people. Something could always be quoted that would show that the church had been there and done that long before the mere thought had crossed anyone else’s minds.

As a class system developed and a moneyed sector of the population arose, they went in for art works. The crying need to ostentaciosly display their new found wealth made them an easy mark for early counterfeiters that cleaned up by supplying these novae riche  with everything their hearts desired.in terms of original art signed by long-deceased artisans. However, their friends wouldn’t know the difference and it a never ending game of can-you-top-this played among the more affluent members of Medieval Society. However, eventually, the scions of Medievill society realized that imposters were cleaning up by selling them  frauduelent works of art and laws were passed to stop the practice. 

In England in 1563, the code for forgery was simple. It went as follows: “5 Eliz C. 15 (1563). If any person shall falsely forge, or make, or cause or assent to be falsely forged or made, any false deed, charter, or writing sealed…court-roll or will in writing…and shall be convicted…he shall pay to the party aggrieved double costs and damages to be assessed by the court…and shall be set on the pillory. And there have his ears cut off, and his nostrils slit and cut, and seared with a hot iron: he shall also forfeit to the queen the profits of his lands during life imprisonment.” [79] And at the time, this was not considered by many to be a severe enough penalty for what these folks were doing.

The government soon tired of waiting until the criminal died in jail to grab his worldly possessions in exchange for his abominable cheating. Life imprisonment penalty lasted for only a century or so until it was determined by the Crown that it would be simpler to execute the criminal and take his lands and assets immediately. The Crown was very busy with fighting wars  and conquering new lands and execution created n immediate source of capital rather than have to receive dividends on the prisoner’s assets over a period of countless years. Until 1832, in Britain, the penalty for forgery remained death by hanging, but it was reduced in that year to exile to the land of Australia a real unconscionable penalty for what some thought was a minor crime.  However, many of the people that were caught in the act determined that they would rather face the hangman’s noose then be sent to that Dark Continent and volunteered.

Meanwhile in the Colonies, from 1709 to 1893 the following crimes were punishable by death in most states: murder, treason, petit treason, rape, arson, robbery and forgery.  It was not until the early part of the 20th century that most of the crimes listed above other than murder were altered to give the perpetrator a lessor sentence. However, during that time, many were burned alive or hung for any of those offenses. The colonies were a brutal place and justice was metted out swiftly. It was felt in those days that the best insurance against continued criminal behavior was a stiff penalty.

During that same period, Scotland, which was considered one of the more lenient areas of the world relative to crime, had several choices that were feasible for someone convicted of forgery. While none of them was particularly pleasant; they ranged from death or amputation of hand and/or tongue. Moreover, many of the criminals that opted for exile to Australia as an alternative to the hangman’s noose resumed their evil ways once enscounced down under. Because they had accumulated to many of Britain’s failed forgers, at that time, Australia ranked that crime right up with the heinous crimes of sheep stealing and murder; any of which could get the culprit hung. To give another example of the differing treatment given to those convicted of forgery, in Canada, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during most of the 18th century, anyone convicted of forgery got off easy by only “having to have one ear cut off, to stand in the pillory an hour and to be imprisoned for a year.”[80]

Penalties for crimes are always looked at based on contemporary thinking, in England during the 18th century, the populace and the Crown were literally obsessed with the problem but as the years passed, society began to view forgery as a mere misdemeanor.

We can see from the laws in the State of New York how they viewed the art of forgery. First the state explains what a forgery and then gives chapter and verse as to your penalty should you be caught doing it.

“In New York, forgery includes the false making, counterfeiting, alteration, erasure or obliteration of a genuine instrument (Penal Code, § 520) An officer or agent of a corporation who with intent to defraud sells, pledges or issues a fraudulent scrip, share certificate, is guilty of forgery in third degree. Falsely making any instrument which purports to be issued by a corporation bearing a pretended signature of a person falsely indicated, as an officer of the company, is forgery just as if such person were in truth such officer (id. § 519). Counterfeiting railroad tickets is forgery in the third degree. Falsely certifying that~ the execution of a deed has, been acknowledged is forgery (id. §511). So also is the forging a fictitious name (People v. BrQwnc N.Y. suppl. 903). Punishment for forgery in the first degree may be twenty years, in the second degree ten years, in the third degree five years.”

Moreover, we all know that Texas is the state of the Union where more executions occur than anywhere else. It is a common belief that Texas does not tolerate criminal behavior but that is a major misconception. It all depends on what the crime is and who does it. However, it is interesting to note how enlightened Texans are when it comes to forgery. You can forge just about anything you want here and the worst penalty that you can get for it is a $500 fine. 




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