“To Counterfeit is Death”: Belcher’s Cave in the Berkshires

Belcher's Cave, Gt. Barrington, MA (1)

PHOTO: Berkshire County Illustrated, 1893

Joe Durwin
3/29/20

“To Counterfeit is Death,” read the inscription atop the currency of colonial New York, among a number of other British colonies in the 1760s and 70s.

This was no hyperbole nor idle threat, for to duplicate the money issued by the crown was considered far more than merely a form of robbery or embezzlement; it was high treason, a grave attack on the very sovereignty of the government.  Severity of penalty notwithstanding, such false duplication seems a historical inevitability for any society; fakes have been uncovered even among some of the earliest known coinage made by the ancient Lydians.

The psychological profile of the counterfeiter throughout history seems distinct from that of robbers and other felons, a more eccentric persona cut from a somewhat different cloth of criminality.

“Modern man, living in a mutually dependent, collective society, cannot become a counterfeiter,” writes Lynn Glaser, in Counterfeiting in America: The History Of An American Way to Wealth.  “A counterfeiter should be possessed of the qualities found only in a Nietzschean hero.”

Some of this larger-than-life characteristic can be found in the exploits of Gill Belcher of Great Barrington, who appears to be the only American counterfeiter to have had a part of town named after him.  For a time, Belcher’s story remained so enshrouded in mystery that in the first history of the town, author Charles Taylor dismissed it as a local myth, an assertion he recanted a decade later after some subsequent research by Franklin L. Pope.

The nefarious Gilbert Belcher migrated to the Berkshires from Hebron, Connecticut in 1765 with his wife and nine children, at which time he bought a rocky bit of property known as “Bung Hill,” from William King.  A silversmith by trade, Belcher was later recalled by locals as a relatively quiet man who kept a low profile.

Just up the side of the rocky hill behind his house, though, a secret lair on the property formed the workshop for a different type of business enterprise.

Set partway up the hillside lay a cavern mouth, whose narrowing passage opens up into a chamber about thirty feet deep, and eight to ten feet wide, with a peaked roof that slants up to about fifteen feet at its highest point.  In daylight, it is dimly lit by two openings to the sky, the smaller of which had at one time served as a chimney for fires that at one time burned there, as evidenced by blackened cave wall surrounding it.

Here Belcher and a group of accomplices plied some of the supplemental portion of his metalwork trade, forging silver coins for surreptitious circulation across the nearby border in New York state.  It’s believed that Belcher used copper to form the bulk of the coins, then hot-dipped them in silver, before engraving them in the likeness of New York currency.  He and his associates were also involved in the printing of counterfeit paper bills.

It is worth noting that local caves have on several occasions served as refuge for fugitives of all sorts, from British loyalists during the American Revolution, to early bank robbers, and even as recently as the past decade for one escaped psychiatric patient.  At least two other Berkshire caverns have served as dens for counterfeiting, the most obvious being the Lanesborough grotto sometimes known as Counterfeiters Cave (alternately known as Constitution Cave or Crevice Cave), along with another in The Hopper of Mount Greylock which has since disappeared, crumbled in and covered over by the constant shifting of rock there.  But the story of the bandits of Belcher’s Cave is by far the most dramatic, and best documented.

Precisely how Belcher’s gang was found out is a detail that appears lost to history, but on October 30, 1772, a force of militia men with muskets surrounded the cave.  Belcher and three others were captured there, while elsewhere other co-conspirators were also arrested, part of a coordinated colonial sting operation.

In total, thirteen men were locked up on related charges: Joseph Bill (often referred to as Dr. Bill), John Williamson, John Wall Lovey, Festus Drake, Silas Robinson, Wane Case, John Johnson, John Stannard, Simon Graviland, Humphrey Denning, John Smith, and William Hubbard.

Some of these confessed quickly, and gave testimony and other evidence to authorities on the rest; charges were dropped against a couple of others in the belief that they had been minor accomplices caught up in the conspiracy. Only half eventually stood trial, with a core group of four ultimately sentenced to hang: Belcher, Lovey, Bill, and Smith.  A fifth, Simon Graviland, had already died in jail from smallpox by December.

The ringleaders of the gang continued to profess their innocence, and Belcher, along with Dr. Bill and Lovey, made every effort to get out from under the seemingly inevitable noose that awaited them.

The first escape attempt came on December 9, two days before their trial in Albany.  The three prisoners managed to get their iron chains off, and pried out some of the stonework near the chimney making a hole large enough to crawl through.  Unbeknownst to them, however, an extra set of guards had been set on watch, and upon hearing their efforts caught them as they emerged.

For whatever reason, John Smith was sentenced to hang some three months before the other three, on January 5.  On the same day, Belcher penned an appeal to New York’s Governor, William Tryson.

In the letter, a mess of poor grammar and spelling, Belcher portrayed himself as an ignorant and pathetic tradesman mistakenly convicted, “now under the acusation of Countifiting Money, also enesent of Fact yet by the witnes the Jury brought me in Gilty, altho I never passed knowingly any Contifiet Money in my life of any sort… your Petitioner Humbly prays your Excellency to take pety on a poor helples Mortal who has no friends but a poor helpless famaly of a wife and Nine Small Childen…”

This document can still be found at the state archives in Albany, stamped “Not Acted Upon.”

Having failed in this tact, Belcher next appealed to Massachusetts, on the grounds that if any crime had been committed, it was within their borders and not in New York. This gained some attention, owing in part to the fact that some tension existed at the time over the exact border between the two and matters of jurisdiction arising from this question.

On February 20, the Governor’s Council in Massachusetts wrote to New York, asserting its authority in asking that the sentence of execution be stayed, “unless it should appear that they have been found guilty of crimes committed within the actual jurisdiction of the province of New York, and to the westward of the line which has been submitted to by both provinces for several years.”

In truth, there was still some contention on exactly where that line fell, though Belcher’s hub of operations would certainly still have been safely within the Massachusetts territory.  Perhaps believing that the gang had intentionally set up just over the border so as to escape retribution for coins and bills then passed over to the other side for circulation, New York ignored the communication.

Finally, as the date of execution neared, Belcher penned a lengthy and eloquent confession to the crime of counterfeiting.  Though apparently written by the same hand, the writing is strikingly different from that of his earlier letter of appeal.

This treatise, later reproduced in full in the Hartford Courant reads, in part:

“Public justice has laid her talons upon me, and I cannot complain of mal-treatment.
The most poignant grief I feel is, that by assiduous exertions to prolong my temporal existence, I have been to dilatory in searching after the things which concern eternal life.
My sun is setting: my days are elapsed.
The night appeareth to me, in which no man can work! O that beams of divine mercy may irradiate my darkened soul!”

Though his lengthy piece of writing vehemently proclaimed his penitence and acceptance of his fate, Belcher had not quite given up on eluding his sentence.

On April 1, 1773, the day before they were to be hanged, he, John Lovey, and Dr. Bill attempted another escape.  As night fell, the three managed to undo their shackles again, and nearly broke out of the jail, but were caught and even more closely confined.  Yet by morning, they had somehow rid themselves of chains yet again.

By the time they were discovered, they had made hasty barricades to the room, swearing defiance of the furious sheriff and his deputies and vowing death to any who attempted to take them by force.

A general alarm was sounded through Albany, at which time “the militia, and in fact the whole available population of the town were got under arms.”

Growing ever more desperate, the trio set fire to the jail, but the crowd of citizenry extinguished the flames.

Broadside-of-the-confession-of-John-Wall-Lovey-printed-in-1773In a last ditch attempt, Lovey- who by some means had managed to obtain a couple of pounds of gunpowder, which he’d placed in a large bottle- held a match up to the makeshift bomb in threat to anyone who attempted to open the door.

This kept the officers and militia at bay for some several hours, until finally a force of men attempted to storm them while they believed their guard to be down.  Lovey struck the match, and dropped it into the bottle.

But the gunpowder failed to fire.

After a frantic struggle, the three were subdued and dragged from the jail, and violently carried to the gallows, in final enactment of their sentence.

The events surrounding the adjudication of the Belcher had some resultant impact, providing renewed impetus to settle unresolved border jurisdictions between the two provinces, a matter that had provoked a certain amount of controversy- and even bloodshed- for the past century.  The month after Belcher and his associates were hanged, commissioners from Massachusetts and New York convened a meeting in Hartford, along with governors of both.  General congeniality at that conference seemed to indicate a definitive resolution was near,  but new pretexts for contention arose in the Fall.  After that the matter became subsumed by the more pressing issues of rebellion, and it was not until years later that it was ultimately resolved.

With regards to counterfeiting, this late colonial period has been called by some “the golden age” both for the frequency of dramatic tales such as Gill Belcher’s, and because the problem it posed occupied the attention of many notable minds, such as Benjamin Franklin, who attempted to find increasingly ingenious methods to thwart its practice.  The issue was far from limited to the colonial period, and continued to plague the fledgling nation of the United States.  A review later undertaken of Berkshire court records reveals at least 15 cases seen between 1810 and 1860, and remained an occasional recurring problem into modern times.

In 1996, the U.S. Treasury announced intentions to revise the security measures of some bills every seven to ten years in an attempt to stay ahead of currency falsifiers.  For even as the technologies involved in money production continue to advance, so too do the strategies of counterfeiters, forever spurred on by the allure of “free” money… particularly when to counterfeit no longer means death.

Sources:

Berkshire Courier, June 17, 1891
Berkshire Eagle, July 19, 1958
Perry, Clay.  Underground New England.  1946
Four Papers of the Berkshire Historical and Scientific Society, 1886

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