The Mystery of the Black-eyed Counterfeiter

I came across this mugshot in the National Archives. Emma Cole is described as a rather petite woman with black eyes. Contrary to what you might think, she wasn’t arrested for crimes against fashion but for counterfeiting coins.

Emma Cole (NARA)


This doesn’t look like your typical mugshot but more like what used to be called a cabinet card or a carte de visite, which was a formal photograph mounted on cardboard.  It reminded me of how many upper-class people were hesitant to have their photographs taken. In 1890, photos were a luxury that most couldn’t afford yet they were also associated with criminality and police photographs, as is the case with Emma Cole. If this picture didn’t have the police notes on the back, it could easily be passed off as a family photograph.

I have a lot of questions about Emma. How do you counterfeit a coin? Assuming that she, like most servants, lived with the family she worked for, did she have a fraudulent mint set up somewhere in her employer’s residence? Also, I’m really curious if her unusual appearance is linked to the counterfeited coins. Maybe that odd piece of fabric sewn to the front of her dress was a pocket to carry the coins, or it could be under her hair. Or is she hiding them in plain sight by using them as buttons?


I rarely do this but someone on Reddit answered one of my questions and it’s really interesting, so I’m adding their comment here:

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