17. "I Had Been Out Before Now but for Him"

MOST OF LONDON'S coiners did not grasp the danger this strange new Warden posed. The documents Newton did not burn, all written between 1698 and 1700, reveal the almost unfair contest between the Warden and those who tried to trade in bad money. One case in the Mint files tells of a conspiracy from the summer of 1698. Early in July, a man named Francis Ball came to the Crown and Sceptre in St. Andrew Street in the City of London. The tavern had a tough reputation and was known to be something of a clearinghouse for jobs the authorities might not approve of. Someone there told Ball about Mary Miller. At the time, Miller was down on her luck, but she was known to have passed bad money, most recently trading in shillings made of pewter. From Ball's perspective, she was the perfect accomplice, broke and able, and he told her that he and his friends "could put...[her] in a way whereby She might be serviceable to them and her Self and get Some money by it."

Ball's proposition: he had made or bought twenty false Spanish pistoles (two of Newton's witnesses differed here). Now he had to get rid of them. He asked Miller to take his stock to one of her contacts in the game. She tried to resist temptation—at least she claimed she did, in her own, probably self-serving account. She told Ball she lacked clothes respectable enough for the job; Ball said he'd buy her better ones. She told him that she knew only one person who might be interested; Ball told her he would take his chances. She got up and left the Crown and Sceptre twice. Each time Ball called her back. At last, she gave in.

Later that day, Miller took two of the counterfeit coins to a house in Smithfield, home to both the meat market and the execution ground where coiners had been taken to their deaths in the previous century. She showed her pistoles to a Mrs. Saker (aka Shaker), left one behind as security, and arranged a meeting with Ball at a nearby tavern the next day. Ball and Miller both came. Saker was waiting. Ball tried to put some distance between him and the crime by handing Miller the paper wallet holding the false coins. Miller dutifully passed it on to Saker—who turned out to be a plant. Her husband burst into the tavern with several other men, seized the false pistoles, and arrested Ball and Miller.

Ball, having made his first mistake by hiring Miller, now compounded the catastrophe by using her as his messenger. When it seemed as if she might be released, he asked her "to go to one Mr. Whitfield to desire him to stand ... his bail." He told Miller that "the blanks for ye counterfeit Spanish pistoles were cast ... in Whitfield's house." That made it urgent to get rid of their coining tools before "worse came on it." Here was evidence that could hang both men, but Miller put Ball off, telling him that it was too late that night for Whitfield to be able to do anything. In truth, it was. Mary Miller was a known quantity to Isaac Newton. She had already betrayed Whitfield—or at least a woman named as Whitfield's "particular friend" accused her of doing so. Within a day, perhaps two, both men found themselves sharing a crowded cell in Newgate.

There they sat, fuming. Ball and Whitfield remained inside for more than a month. By mid-August Ball had had enough, and he told his friend so. "Damne my blood," he said. "I had been out before now but for him," meaning Newton. Whitfield agreed. Their nemesis "was a Rogue and if ever King James came again he would Shoot him"—treason upon treason here, first for suborning the King's coin, and now for giving voice to the Jacobite dream of overthrowing King William. Ball happily cheered this double treachery: "God dam my blood so will I and tho I dont know him yet I'le find him out."

At least one man in that jammed cell was listening. Once Newton put his mind to the job, someone was always listening. This time it was a man named Bond, Samuel Bond.

Bond was a "chyrugeon," a surgeon; he was originally from Derby, now lodging in Glasshouse Yard in Blackfriars. He had been arrested for debt, and he had a fine memory for dialogue. His testimony completed the case against the counterfeiters. In addition to the threats against the Warden's person, Bond told Newton that he had heard the two men plan to renege on their bail, and had listened as they described how they gilded their false money; he reported that they said it cost them no more than six or seven pence per coin to do so.

This was how it was supposed to happen: coiners, traitors, condemning themselves out of their own mouths. Newton placed himself—or those he had persuaded or compelled to serve as his eyes, ears, or provocateurs—into position to catch them as they blabbed. Ball and Whitfield, puffed with bravado, completely overmatched, provided a proof, elegant as any geometrical demonstration, of the proposition that one tangled with Isaac Newton at one's desperate peril.

While talkative fools like Ball and Whitfield presented little difficulty to Newton, William Chaloner remained at large, a wholly different species of problem. He was vastly more ambitious than the usual optimists Newton confronted. "He scorn'd the petty Rogueries of Tricking single Men," aiming instead at "imposing up on a whole Kingdom"—as his biographer rather proudly put it. Although true-crime writers tend to inflate the importance of their subjects, Chaloner did in fact aim to play on the national stage—and unlike any other coiner Newton encountered, Chaloner had the wit to take a genuinely long view. The scheme he set in motion in the spring of 1697 had its start in the moves he had made over the previous three years to gain some authority over the Mint itself.

Chaloner, like Newton, understood that counterfeiting carried with it the certainty of betrayal. The coiner, forced to rely on others to get his product into circulation, knew that some of his confederates would be vulnerable to arrest and then to the need to save their own skins. Chaloner had already grasped that there was one sure way to get coins into the marketplace without openly passing them: do so from within the Mint.

He had tried to get inside that magic circle already, but Newton had not fallen for his trick. His next attempt to insert himself was better prepared. In February 1697 Chaloner appeared before a special committee of the House of Commons investigating alleged abuses at the Mint. He provided the committee with what seemed to be a compelling account of Mint errors and his own plausible remedies. He began by arguing that the Mint's officers were incapable of detecting counterfeiting, or were even party to a sophisticated version of clipping taking place right in front of them on the coin production line. Chaloner told Parliament's investigators and then argued in a brief pamphlet that the Mint's chief employees were so specialized that they could not check each other's work for fraud. "None of the said Officers of Work-men," he wrote, "know whether the Essay-Master hath made the Bullion standard," nor if "the Melter doth Mould and Temper the Bullion so fit [i.e., to make it suitable] for the Impression" (the stamping of coin faces), and so on, until, Chaloner declared, "Now everyone doing his business as may be most for his own advantage."

The result of such carefully maintained specialization? According to Chaloner, it had already been proved that "there hath been a great quantity of Counterfeit Mony Coyned in the Mint"; that Mint staff were selling dies out of the Tower; and that "our present Money is so disengenously Coyned that it may be easily Debased, Diminished and Counterfeited."

The worst of it was that at least some of what Chaloner alleged was true. Dies had been spirited out of the Mint. Counterfeiters were producing false coin. Individual Mint officers did execute their duties, as Chaloner put it, "as may be most for his own advantage." The rot started at the top, with the Master, Thomas Neale, who raked off his percentage of every piece struck during the recoinage—amounting to more than fourteen thousand pounds in 1697 alone—and yet did nothing for the money, delegating the actual work to a relatively poorly paid salaried assistant. Further down the chain, as the committee reported with scorn barely masked by the official prose, "the present assay master and the present melter have married two sisters."

Why should it matter that the two men had become brothers-in-law? Because, although the previous melter had given up his post, unable to make a profit at the agreed price of four pence per pound weight of silver committed to the furnaces, the current, happy husband "hath got a great estate by this place and keeps a coach." Here, unstated but clear, was the implication of corruption. There was only one way the new melter could gain such easy riches, when his predecessor could not. The assay master, his wife's sister's husband, had to be sending along silver mixed with excessive alloys of cheaper metal—a fraud that would allow the two men to pocket the difference.

This, clearly, was a disaster in the making. If it became generally believed that the Mint was releasing what were, in effect, clipped coins, the value of English currency would again become a fiction. Still, the particular form of the fraud suggested an obvious solution, as Chaloner eagerly pointed out. Given that the management of the conniving, conspiratorial, moneygrubbing Mint workers had proved to be beyond the Mint's top leadership—no need to specify whether it was the absent Neale or the inexperienced Newton—why not add "an Officer ... to the Mint, who understands Melting Essaying, Alloying Graving, Smith-work and all other parts of Coyning"? That man "shall supervise the Word and Assay the Money when Coyned," reporting under oath each month the results of his efforts.

No one needed to be told who this paragon should be. Chaloner knew, however, that merely diagnosing the faults in the management of the Mint would not win him this notional supervisor's post. And so, in a demonstration of what made him unique among London's counterfeiters, he proposed to the parliamentary investigators a test of his ability to handle the job. Chaloner told them he had invented a new technique for making coins, an approach he described as "A Method ... humbly Proposed, how Money may be Coyned, so that it will be Morally impossible to Counterfeit."

All counterfeits, he reminded the committee, are made "either by Casting or Stamping." He had ideas about how to deal with both methods. To defeat those who could cast good simulations of the Mint's edged coins, he proposed a new technique and machine—one that would mill the edges of coins "with a Hollow, or Groove." Such a subtlety would render it "certainly impossible to Counterfeit Money by Casting it." To prove the point, Chaloner asked the committee to take one of the samples he had struck and pass it on to the guild of goldsmiths, to get their assurance that the new method could not be copied. This was classic Chaloner. He had never yet seen the inside of the Mint. He had, for all his efforts, no official role in managing the currency; he had been repeatedly implicated in coining on his own behalf over the previous five years. And yet now, with his own hand, he gave Parliament the proof that he could at will commit what was, after all, a capital crime.

Chaloner's next move brought him to the point of the entire exercise. Having proposed a technique to thwart those who cast their counterfeits, he offered a new plan to defeat those who stamped their products. Current coins, he said, were of "such bad Workmanship so that every Graver, Smith, Watchmaker &c. can Grave Stamps to counterfeit Money, and Stamp it with a Hammer, upon a Stone." The incompetents at the Mint could not outthink a mere blacksmith—but Chaloner could. He had brought with him the materials to show the worthy men of Parliament how the nation's currency ought to be produced. All it would take were a few minor alterations to the Mint's machines, which he could make in the moneying rooms at the Tower in a few days and for a modest charge—no more than a hundred pounds or so. Then the modified coining machines would be able to "Stamp ... the Impression so high as to make it Impossible to do with a Hammer or a small Engine"—and even better, his improved methods would require only "two Horses...[to] do all the work, which now Imploys 70 or 80 Men." When all was in place—new tools, modified methods, and a couple of willing horses—then, Chaloner wrote, the new money would be "more Beautiful, and Durable than now our Coyne is made."

And what, besides a bit of cash and a week or so, would be required to achieve such a triumph? Not much, a mere trifle: just that "The Proposer hereof being order'd to perform some of his Proposals in the Mint." As ever, Chaloner kept his eye on the prize: access to the Mint, its tools, its river of hot, precious metal.

The implications of Chaloner's testimony were missed by no one—certainly not Isaac Newton. In a response to Parliament, he wrote that "Mr Chaloner before a Committee of the last session of Parliament labored to accuse and vilify the Mint." Newton's responses were consistently defensive—discordantly so, given his usual tone of absolute authority. In one draft memo he wrote, weakly, that he was not to blame for the behavior of the assay master and the melter because their false coining at the Mint happened "three weeks or a month before ye Warden knew any thing of these matters." He went on to complain that some of his own testimony had been omitted from the committee report, as if he had been reduced to mere procedural objections.

Nevertheless, Chaloner did not entirely convince the members of the committee, not even with his bravura demonstrations of what a coiner of real skill could do. But he did impress them. They found that "undeniable demonstrations have been given and shewn unto this committee by Mr. William Chaloner, that there is a better, securer and more effectual way, and with very little charge to his majesty, to prevent either casting or counterfeiting of the milled mony ... than is now used in the present coinage." And so, on February 15, 1697, the committee commanded Newton to "prepare or Cause to be prepared such matters and things"—inside the Mint—"to the End [that] the said Mr Chaloner may make an Experiment ... in relation to Guineas." That is, if the committee were to be obeyed, Isaac Newton had to welcome into the Mint a man who had just argued as publicly as possible that the Warden of the Mint was a fool, a thief, or both.

Newton chose not to comply. He had legal grounds to refuse the order. The oath he had sworn on taking up his post bound him never to allow an outsider to see the Mint's edging mills. Instead, he asked Chaloner to tell him how his methods worked, and when Chaloner refused, took it on himself to "direct the workmen (without him) to groove some half crowns, shillings and six pences." Newton himself carried those coins to the committee, demonstrating that Chaloner's ideas were unworkable. And there the matter rested, at least officially. If the House was offended at the Warden's recalcitrance, it did not stop its investigative committee from pasting a large section of Newton's testimony into the final report, verbatim.

But the fact of Chaloner's charges remained a public stain. Chaloner continued to press his claim through the spring of 1697, still hoping that the pressure of parliamentary patronage would win him entry to the Mint. It did not. He had miscalculated—though it was not yet obvious how badly. Newton had been perfectly ready to forget William Chaloner after the messy business of the missing Tower dies the year before. But the parliamentary report, with its praise for Chaloner, was an open sore. Through page after page of draft rebuttals, written in a cramped and crowded hand, passages crossed out and written over in tiny, hasty, furious script, great gobs of ink blotted here and there, runs Newton's private rage. He complained of "calumny" and of the offense given by Chaloner's "libeling ... in print." Publicly, though, he held his tongue. He waited and he watched, he and his agents, eyes and ears open all across London.

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