Hospital for Greenbacks (Aug, 1949)

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Hospital for Greenbacks

Millions of mutilated dollars are pieced together by money-menders at the Treasury’s Currency Redemption Division. By James Nevin Miller

TREASURY Department officials were puzzled recently when a huge, evil-smelling package arrived in the mail. In it was the ash box of a wood-burning cook stove. A letter which followed explained the whole thing, though.

It was from an old lady in Baltimore who told how her drunkard son stole the entire family fortune and hid it inside her stove. When she cooked supper that night, the currency was scorched almost beyond recognition. Hysterical with grief, she was sending the charred remnants to Washington. Could they help her?

The box was forwarded to the Currency Redemption Division and three weeks later, thanks to a unique little army of Treasury Department workers, every one of the banknotes was identified. The woman received full value for her lifetime savings.

Twenty special examiners, all of them women, are employed at the laborious job of piecing together hundreds of bits of paper currency damaged by fire, water, decay, wear and tear. Within a recent twelve-month period, these money magicians identified and redeemed almost four million dollars’ worth of paper money.

In general, the amount paid the owners in exchange for the damaged banknotes depends on the completeness with which they can be identified as to denomination and genuineness. If three-fifths or more of the original greenback is recognizable, the bill is redeemed at full value. When there is less than three-fifths and more than two-fifths, only one-half of the face value is given.

Fire destroys more currency than all other causes together. The Division even receives charred banknotes from banks. A few years ago, a bank in Oregon was wiped out in a blaze which leveled half the city of Astoria. Bank officials dug around in the safe deposit vaults and finally accumulated a large batch of debris which they forwarded to the Treasury with the information that there should have been $100,000. Result? Of the $100,000 claimed, $120,000 was identified! The mystery was solved when a checkup revealed that a certain gambler had put $20,000 in his safe deposit box without recording it.

Burying bills in the ground is the second cause of money deterioration. During World War II, the Redemption Division received at least $300,000 in buried currency. Most of it was redeemed for full value.

Quite a few batches of banknotes found after plane crashes during the war also were forwarded to the treasury for identification, in order to help settle the estates of dead crew members.

Two of the commonest hiding places for paper money are beds and stoves. One lady in the deep South hid a large roll of bills inside a bed caster. Her house burned down and the bed was destroyed, reducing the caster to a molten mass and the money to charred bits. She forwarded it, caster and all, to Washington and full payment was eventually authorized.

Many a fanner has dropped a bit of cash out of his pocket while plowing his fields. But few are as lucky as the one in Ohio who plowed under his pocketbook one spring. He searched frantically for the wallet but couldn’t find it. About a year later, he was plowing the same area and unearthed the lost wallet, torn to shreds and completely decayed. The money was practically unrecognizable but he forwarded the whole thing to the Treasury. Within a month, the money experts there sent him a check for the whole amount.

Many a murder has reached the attention of the greenback magicians. Some time ago, an elderly couple in West Virginia who didn’t trust hanks hid $6000 in tin cans and buried them’ under the kitchen floor. One night, thieves broke in and searched the house unsuccessfully for the treasure. Infuriated at failing to find it, they murdered the old couple after trying to force them to reveal the hiding place. Then, to cover their crime, the robbers set fire to the house. Several years later, relatives located the money cans and inside was the money in terrible condition. But, it was forwarded on to Washington and the old faithful Redemption Division came through with a complete identification.

But one of the oddest cases in the Division’s history came to light just the other day. In fact it’s still in the process of being investigated. A few months ago, an elderly man dashed excitedly into the headquarters of the Federal Reserve Bank at Salt Lake City. He told this story:

Back in 1943 he had saved $2500 in cash. But he didn’t want to put it into a bank so he placed the banknotes in a copper can and carefully buried the can in the cellar of a building in town. The money represented his entire fortune and he decided to leave it in its hiding place until he urgently needed it. And the need came a year later. But he forgot exactly where he’d hidden the money. He searched frantically, digging holes and messing up cellars. Five years passed and his memory continued to act up. Finally, last fall the hiding place came back to him in a flash. He visited the cellar and dug up the can. But he was shocked and grieved to find that the money had rotted.

Some of it could be redeemed at a local bank but the rest was sent to Washington where it is still being pieced together. The man, though, has regained his respect for banks.

When you’re handling money be sure you don’t have any farm animals or pets around. A midwestern farmer was petting his favorite calf recently when the animal snatched a roll of bills from his hand and swallowed $70 worth of the precious green stuff. Caught without any ready cash, the farmer decided to kill the creature in the hope of retrieving the money. Unfortunately, the currency recovered from the animal’s stomach was chewed into tiny pieces. As a last resort, the farmer put the bits into an envelope and forwarded them to the Redemption Division. Luckily for him, the calf’s digestive juices were slow-working enough to allow for complete identification.

But you might not be so lucky. So take this friendly tip from Uncle Sam’s currency experts: take care of your money and whatever you do with it, don’t hide your banknotes in a place where they’re likely to deteriorate. Rotted currency will not separate easily like burned greenbacks.

Your best bet for keeping your hard-earned folding money out of the Redemption Division is to deposit it in a reputable bank. Then you’ll never have to make a desperate dash to the “Hospital for Greenbacks.” Unless, of course, the bank burns down.

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