In A Nutshell
Isaac Newton, as the warden of the Royal Mint, led the British government in cracking down on counterfeiters. Among his targets was the prolific William Chaloner, who would confess to minting somewhere around £30,000 worth of coins alone during his career. When Chaloner’s first arrest sent him back to the street, Newton spent a year and a half building up a pile of evidence against him. He even went undercover in some of the most dangerous parts of London, creating a network of spies, informants, and witnesses that eventually helped him see Chaloner hung for his crimes.
The Whole Bushel
When it comes to Sir Isaac Newton, his name is much more likely to conjure up notions of pioneering groundbreaking concepts in physics than, say, skulking in pubs and spying on criminals.
Newton was a pretty big deal in his own lifetime, and in 1696 he accepted a position that had little to do with science. As warden for the Royal Mint, he wasn’t just a figurehead. The appointment put the 53-year-old Newton at the head of an organization that was often the victim of a massively lucrative criminal trade. Any coins struck before 1662 were made of silver, and these hand-struck coins were worth more when it came to their silver value than their monetary value. Edges were clipped and shaved, and coins were melted down for their silver.
Once coins were made with milled edges, the counterfeiting trade really got off to a booming start. At one point, Newton himself estimated that around 20 percent of the coins collected by the mint during his reign as warden were counterfeit.
It was a profession that was incredibly dangerous, too. Counterfeiting was so widespread that the punishment was swift and final: Those found guilty were hanged, drawn, and quartered.
William Chaloner’s story is a fairly sad one. A troublemaker from youth, he discovered his talent at counterfeiting foreign coins when he was apprenticed to a nail maker. When he headed into London with the goal of going straight, he found that he was walking into a city governed by craftsman’s guilds, which made it next to impossible for him to get legitimate work.
He tried being a doctor, he tried being a soothsayer, and he stumbled into a brilliant scam. He became well-known for being able to recover stolen property, but it wasn’t long before people figured out that he was so good at finding things because he was the one that took the things to begin with.
By 1690, he was arrested for burglary, and that was also about the time that he fell in with a ring of counterfeiters that allowed him to take a few steps up the criminal ladder. He hatched an audacious scheme. Dressing himself up as the most respectable gentleman you can imagine, he headed to the Royal Mint and offered them his services. His shtick? Inspecting the minting process and advising them on how to better combat counterfeiters.
The problem was Isaac Newton, who didn’t just run the mint from behind a desk. In order to rat out the people on the streets behind the counterfeiting, Newton would dress up as one of the ordinary rabble and head out into some of the most notorious taverns in the city. Newton, who was also a justice of the peace, could arrest and interrogate anyone he wanted.
Chaloner’s first arrest came in 1697, but he was able to pull some strings and get released. Over the next year and a half, Newton started building up an indisputable pile of evidence thanks to a network of spies, informants, and witness confessions given at the Tower of London.
Hundreds of documents on the investigation still exist, which makes it even weirder that when Newton did finally take Chaloner back to court, the trial was a mess of accusations. That didn’t matter by that time, and it took the judge just two minutes to pass judgment.
Chaloner was hanged.
Show Me The Proof
Featured image credit: Sir Godfrey Kneller
American Physical Society: March 16, 1699—William Chaloner, Counterfeiter, Hanged
Executed Today: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey
Science Blog: Newton and the Counterfeiter