Some people say that the perfect crime has never been committed, since the perfect crime is one that no one recognizes as a crime. The perpetrator gets away clean, and no one is the wiser for what has taken place.
That may be so. If it is, in our hobby of philately, we have the next best thing to a perfect crime.It is a crime that was so skillfully executed that no one knew it had taken place until more than a quarter century later, by which time the guilty party was no longer among the living.The date was 1872 and the place was the London Stock Exchange. The Exchange’s transactions were forwarded by telegraph.
The telegraph companies, of which there had been several, had been taken over by the General Post Office in 1870 at instigation of the British Post Office. In the United States, there also had been many individual companies, but competition and bankruptcy finally reduced their number to the handful that now exists.
A telegraph office was located in the Royal Exchange, and the stock brokers wanting to send messages simply took the telegraph forms to the window for acceptance. The charges were paid with postage stamps which were affixed to the telegram itself. Telegrams varied in cost, depending on how many words and to what location they were destined, the rates starting at a shilling for 25 words.
There was no way to match up the use of shilling stamps with the number of telegrams sent, since the shilling stamps were also in use for postage purposes. In fact, far more shilling stamps were used postally over the entire United Kingdom than for telegraphic purposes.
Almost nothing is known today other than the fact that in 1872, counterfeit shilling stamps began to be applied to telegrams.
Whether the stamps had been privately made and sold to users prior to use is not known. Whether there were others in on the scheme to defraud the British Post Office besides the man in charge of the window is not known.
What is known is that in 1872, and well into 1873, the counterfeit stamps were used, and an estimate of the cost to the post office was almost $100,000.
But for a philatelist, the counterfeiting of the stamps would never have become known, even today, and the perfect crime would have been exactly that.In 1898, Charles Nissen, a London stamp dealer, purchased a huge accumulation of old telegrams with thousands of stamps affixed.
Although the green shilling stamp of 1872 was still relatively common, the accumulation did warrant soaking and sorting, and Nissen proceeded to do this.
The shilling green of 1872 was an easy stamp to counterfeit. Rather than being engraved, it was printed by the simple process called letter-press.
The counterfeiter had to be a philatelist. In 1872, the shilling green was appearing with its plate number, “5”, worked into the design, but soon another plate was brought out with the number “6”. The faker was aware of this. His products soon appeared with the changed plate number.
One can fake the design of stamp, but it is difficult to counterfeit a watermark, since that is placed in the sheet before printing.
As a security against counterfeiting, the shilling green was printed on “Spray on Rose” watermarked paper. Of course, once a telegraph form was canceled, no watermark would be visible.
Nissen found large quantities of unwatermarked stamps, which had never been issued. Even more indicative of the lack of philatelic knowledge on the part of the counterfeiter were the lettering combinations in the corners. The letters used made an impossible combination, which would have given the game away at the time of issue had they been noticed. It was 26 years since the stamps had been used, and Nissen showed the stamps to the authorities and told them of his conclusions.
There was no doubt that the stamps were counterfeit, and that someone n the Stock Exchange had been selling fakes and pocketing the money.
Scotland Yard had a record of all of the Stock Exchange employees who had worked there 26 years before; and all these yet living were questioned. Some had, of course, died in the meantime, and it is presumed that among these was the maker of the fakes. The stamps are still frequently available and often appear in London auctions. They are not known postally used, and every one that has turned up in the 83 years since Nissen discovered them has the familiar postmark of the Stock Exchange.
Was it a perfect crime? If one leaves it to the person who conceived it, operated it and got away clean with it, we have to agree that it was.
This has been reprinted from Global Stamp News – January 1991 – Issue #3