On April 1, 2017, I spoke at the annual Surratt Society Conference. The topic of my speech revolved around the hidden histories of some of the minor characters in the Lincoln assassination story. One of the subjects of that talk was Spencer M. Clark, a witness at the conspiracy trial with a very scandalous past. The following text comes from my speech. Click here to read about another subject of the speech, James P. Ferguson.
Spencer Morton Clark
Burial Location: Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut
Connection to the Lincoln assassination:
Spencer Morton Clark was the very first superintendent of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. At the trial of the conspirators Clark was called to testify regarding the pair of boots that had been confiscated from conspirator Lewis Powell. The day before Clark gave his testimony he was given one of Powell’s boots by the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and was asked to inspect them. Inside one of the boots was a mark of ink. After examining the boot under a microscope, Clark came to the conclusion that the mark of ink had been put there to obscure some sort of writing that lay beneath it. Using a bath of oxalic acid, Clark was able to remove the top layer of ink. He was clearly able to see the letters J W then a letter that was either a P or a B. He also determined the last two letters were th. Clark concluded that the written word that had been cover up was the name J W Booth. Unfortunately Clark left the oxalic acid on too long and the ink from the name was also dissolved away. However, Clark was supported in his assessment by two other treasury workers who were with him. Spencer Clark’s testimony at the trial was brief but worked to prove that the boots worn by Powell had either been owned or purchased by John Wilkes Booth.
Spencer Clark was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1811. As a young man Clark entered into many business ventures all of which failed. He declared bankruptcy twice before gaining employment in D.C. in a position he was not qualified for. In 1860, Clark was made the Acting Engineer in the Bureau of Construction for the U.S. Treasury Department despite the fact that he was not an engineer. However Clark made a good impression on Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and was retained.
Clark’s employment in the Treasury department came at a monumental time. Prior to the Civil War the only legal tender in the United States were gold and silver coins produced by the Treasury. These coins were known as specie. However the costs associated with the Civil War were so high and the amount of gold and silver was limited. Lincoln and his government had to look elsewhere to find a way to finance the war. The decision was finally made to introduce paper notes to serve as legal tender bills. This is commonplace to us now, but back then it was highly controversial and even Lincoln only agreed to it as a necessary, yet unfortunate, war effort. The treasury at this time did not have the facilities to print their own notes and there was great fear that the practice of printing money would fuel corruption within the government. Therefore these early notes were printed by private companies and then sent to the Treasury in sheets. In his position in the Treasury, Clark and his clerks were charged with cutting out the notes, signing them on behalf of the treasury officials, and the imprinting each note with a seal.
Clark soon required a larger work force to handle the increased output of the notes. With most able-bodied men off fighting in the war, the Treasury became one of the first government agencies to hire a large number of female clerks. The women who joined the ranks were often teenagers and young women whose fathers were either off fighting or had been killed. The Treasury sought to hire only girls and women who demonstrated a true need for employment to help provide for their families. Over 300 women found employment in the Treasury department before the end of the war.
In July of 1862, Clark and his department were investigated by a Congressional committee over the government’s contracts for the notes and qualifications of its workers. The committee determined that the contracts signed by the government with the private printers resulted in an extravagance in the expenditure of public money. They also found that Clark was not qualified for his position and suggested his removal. Clark was retained however due to his familiarity with Secretary Chase and his other superior, Francis Spinner, who was the Treasurer of the United States.
In August of 1862, Clark was authorized to purchase the machines necessary for the government to print some of its own notes rather than buying all of them from private companies. This decision essentially established the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and resulted in Spencer Clark becoming its first Superintendent. Clark supervised the production of the $1 and $2 notes. Clark’s new bureau was also tasked with the printing of the government’s new fractional currency. These bills were worth less than a dollar and were meant to supplement the dwindling supply of specie. In the initial run of fractional notes only Thomas Jefferson and George Washington appeared.
Clark, it should be noted, did a good job of instituting better security measures to impede counterfeiting. In the second issue of fractional currency, Clark had a copper circle placed around the head of Washington and Jefferson. If the bill was photographed, this ring would come out as black, thwarting the counterfeiter. Yet despite the positive aspects Spencer Clark brought to his position, there were also many negative aspects. Clark’s investment in the government’s printing presses proved to be misplaced. The presses Clark acquired literally came from the lowest bidder and the quality was lacking. Broken presses were common and delayed their production. Clark was also very poor in his book-keeping. His incomplete records of production and distribution were troublesome to members of Congress who were already worried about the corruptible nature of printing the country’s money.
In late 1863, Secretary Chase began hearing rumors about his printing department. These rumors were not about poor books or broken machines, however. The rumors being spread were about Clark, his female employees, and “gross immoralities” that were occurring under his supervision. Chase, who still held aspirations of his own to become President, decided to look into the matter in order to prevent any political enemy from discovering something that might damage his future. Chase requested that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton lend him a capable investigator to look into the rumors. Specifically Chase requested the assistance of Lafayette Baker.
Chase would come to regret his request to have Baker investigate. Baker had served as a detective, special agent, and finally as a special provost marshal under Stanton. While Baker made himself useful to the government, his methods and character were highly questionable. He was notorious for throwing those he believed of wrongdoing into the Old Capitol Prison without charge. The declaration of martial law during the war gave him the authority to do so. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Stanton would call on Baker again to help manage the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.
Lafayette Baker committed himself to his investigation into the Treasury and opponents of the administration could smell the scent of scandal brewing. Salmon Chase had hoped for a quick exoneration of his subordinates but that was not what Baker had in mind. Baker believed that the public demanded a full and detailed inquiry and he would not allow himself to be a tool for Chase’s benefit. Baker was far too much of a loose cannon to do Chase’s bidding and wrap up the investigation quietly. While Baker charged a couple of Clark’s clerks with corruption, his biggest accusations were about Clark himself whom he accused of committing sexual misconduct with his female workers. Baker gathered statements by female employees that added up to a very damning picture against Clark, a married man.
Ella Jackson stated that she and another female clerk had traveled to Philadelphia at the invitation of Clark and another male clerk in the department named Gustavus Henderson. In Philadelphia, Miss Jackson registered at a hotel under an assumed name and spent the weekend with Clark. She also stated that Clark often offered her beer in his private office late at night, though she insisted she never drank more than two glasses and was never drunk at work. Ada Thompson, an actress, provided further details of Clark’s affair with Miss Jackson by informing to Baker that, “During the month of December last, Miss Jackson seldom came home before two or three o’clock in the morning. She stated to me that during these times she did not work later than ten or eleven o’clock and that the balance of that time…she spent in Mr. Clark’s private office.” Thompson also stated to Baker that she had “often seen in Miss Jackson’s possession obscene books, pictures, and prints, which she…informed me were given to her by Clark.”
Baker interviewed and received a statement from another young woman who had been in the employ of Mr. Clark. This girl stated:
“Mr. S M Clark came to me in the office, and asked me to come to his private residence, at the same time informing me that his wife was in the country. I did not at first comply with his request. On the next Saturday night…I went to Mr. Clark’s house about eight o’clock in the evening…Mr. Clark and myself occupied the same room until morning…About two weeks after my first visit to Mr. Clark’s house, he again asked me to go to his house and spend another evening with him; this request I complied with. I recollect distinctly a conversation I had with Mr. Clark. He said his wife was very jealous and at one time told him that she believed the Treasury Department was nothing more nor less than a house of ill-fame…Clark paid me as high as forty dollars; these amounts were independent of my wages earned in the Department…I freely confess my shame and disgrace, trusting that no publicity will be given to my statement.”
Lafayette Baker did not heed this woman’s request for confidentiality. Slowly, different pieces of Baker’s investigation were being leaked to public. Secretary Chase was seeing the reputation of his department and himself sullied. Chase suspended Clark but stopped short of firing him. Chase wanted Clark to resign but the latter would not go so easily. “I think it right that the country should know that your confidence in my official management has not been misplaced,” Clark wrote in an open letter to Chase that was published in the newspaper. Clark claimed that the charges against him were politically motivated since he was a hold out from President Buchanan’s administration. Essentially Clark set it up that if Chase moved to fire him, it would be far more damaging to Chase and his prospects as it would be confirmation that he had allowed things to get so out of hand in his department. Chase was trapped. The allegations against Clark were so detailed and extensive that they were undoubtedly true, but Chase had to save face. And so Chase turned to the only thing left of him, partisan politics.
While Baker’s investigation failed to find any major examples of monetary corruption in the Treasury department, the reports surrounding Clark’s sexual malfeasance became blood in the water to opponents of Lincoln’s administration in Congress. An investigative committee was created. Chase however, was connected enough to make sure that the majority of the Congressmen placed on the committee were friends. While there were a few token Democrats to provide the illusion of impartiality, the chairman of the committee was Republican representative, and future President, James Garfield.
Chase and Garfield had become extremely close with Chase considering Garfield to be the son he never had. The Republican majority committee worked extensively to attack Baker’s investigation. Each political party now found itself in a strange place. The Democrats, who loathed Baker and his methods, jumped to Baker’s defense while the Republicans, who had relied on Baker many times to be the shady means to achieve their ends, turned against him. Baker, feeling betrayed by his friends released all the pages of his scandalous findings to the public. Many newspapers would not print the reports deeming them too depraved to print, but others published the ladies’ statements in all their depraved detail. A political cartoon of the day even included the scandal with a brazen gentlemen eyeing a group of young ballerinas preparing for the Treasury Department’s production of “A New Way to Pay Old Debts”.
One might think that with all of the uproar that was being caused in the Democratic newspapers over Clark’s misconduct and the release of Baker’s reports that it would be impossible for Chase, Clark, and the Republicans to come out unscathed. However, in the end, Lafayette Baker’s own over-zealousness in his investigation would cause his downfall.
In early May of 1864, right about when the congressional investigation began, one of the Treasury department’s female clerks, Maggie Duvall, suddenly died. Maggie was described as “a beautiful and attractive young lady, with auburn hair, somewhat freckled.” Baker did not believe this death was a coincidence. He believed that Maggie had been a victim of Mr. Clark and died as a result of an abortion. Baker was able to collect a statement from another clerk that seemed to support this idea. And so, against the heartrending protests of Maggie’s family, Baker had Maggie’s funeral halted and had her body sent to an examining committee of local physicians to check for signs of an abortion.
In the end, however, Baker’s gamble backfired. It was found that Maggie had died of consumption and that her “virtue” was still intact. When the press heard the news of what Baker had done, they crucified him for it. His desecration of the poor girl’s body against the wishes of her family and the way he had attempted to sully her reputation became more of an outrage that than Clark’s alleged actions towards the other women. The Republicans were amazingly able to refrain the issue and turn Baker into the enemy. When Garfield and his majority in the congressional committee released their report they alleged that most of the charges against Clark were fabrications created by Baker on behalf of private printing companies in New York who were unhappy with having lost their contracts to print the government’s notes with the establishment of Clark’s bureau. In the end, the committee found that Lafayette Baker, “by the aid of coerced testimony” and with the assistance of “female prostitutes associated with him” had set out to destroy the reputation of Spencer Clark.
Lafayette Baker was livid and challenged Garfield to produce any evidence that he was working behalf of printing companies, had coerced any testimonies, or had used female prostitutes to make his case. In truth, all of these charges were groundless but it didn’t matter. Garfield had managed to reframe the issue in the public mind to protect his friends and his party. The Treasury scandal just went away which is why Spencer Clark was still in his position as superintendent of the printing division when he was asked to examine Lewis Powell’s boot in 1865.
But we’re still not done with Mr. Clark. In fact, we haven’t even touched on the scandal he is most known for and the way in which he changed the course of American currency forever.
In June of 1864, just after the inquiry over Clark’s sexual misconduct ended, Congress approved the creation of a third issue of fractional currency. The first and second issues, which ranged from 5 cents to 50 cents, had only contained the portraits of Washington and Jefferson. The design process was a lengthy affair with dies having to be created by outside companies. During this time Secretary Chase resigned from his post. He was replaced by Maine Senator William Fessenden who became the new Secretary of the Treasury.
Clark was in charge of the creation of the new fractional notes. It’s possible he was trying to curry favor with his new boss when he approached him with his idea for the portraits that should be placed on the new notes. Clark suggested that the notes contain the images of Secretary Fessenden, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George Harrington, Controller of the Currency Hugh McCullough, and the Treasurer of the United States Francis Spinner. Secretary Fessenden agreed to have his own face on one of the bills but told Clark to ask the other gentlemen for their consent. The other gentlemen were reluctant to the proposition but eventually agreed to it when they were assured by Clark that Secretary Fessenden wanted it so (which was a lie). In time Secretary Fessenden’s portrait appeared on the 25 cent note, and Treasurer Spinner’s portrait went on the 50 cent note.
These high value notes went into circulation but were not as common as the lower ones. The die for Controller McCullough’s note was damaged upon delivery to the Treasury and he, already being uncomfortable with the idea of being on currency, refused to allow Clark to order a new one. The design for Harrington’s note was apparently not yet in production. What occurred next is a little uncertain but end result was this:
Spencer Clark put his own face on the 5 cent fractional note. The story goes that the demand for 5 cent notes were so high that the treasury was under a time crunch to release the new issue of these bills. Strangely, or perhaps purposefully, Clark had originally planned for Francis Spinner to be on the 5 cent note but moved him to the less popular 50 cent note. Clark went up to Treasurer Spinner, told him of the almost completed design for the 5 cent note but lamented he had no portrait to put upon it. According to one story, Clark then said, “What head shall we use?” Clark asked Spinner, “the boys have got up a die with my head, what objection is there to using it?” Spinner then allegedly replied, “I have none”. Clark then went off telling people that he had the authorization of Francis Spinner to use his own image and he just so happened to have a die with his own portrait on it ready to go. However the truth is that Francis Spinner did not have the authority to approve designs nor did he claim to. When Secretary Fessenden saw the early proofs of the new 5 cent notes with Clark’s face, he rebuffed Clark. Clark then told him that it was Spinner who had insisted that Clark’s image be put upon the notes due to his years of faithful service to the bureau (which was a lie). The other story surrounding the placement of Spencer Clark’s face states that, when Clark approached Treasurer Spinner inquiring about who to put on the 5 cent note, he said something along the lines of, “Would the likeness of Clark do?” Spinner apparently believed that Spencer was referring to that great American explorer William Clark, of Louis and Clark fame. Spinner agreed to this and it was not until after the proofs were made that it was discovered that there had been a “misunderstanding”. Regardless of what really happened, due to the time constraints and demand for the bills, the production of the 5 cent notes with Spencer Clark’s face was allowed to continue.
As you might imagine, when these new 5 cent notes first appeared in public in February of 1866, there was quite an uproar. People had previous talked of the impudence of when Salmon Chase was placed on the $1 notes produced by the treasury and now here were fractional bills containing the images of three more treasury workers. Though George Washington was retained on the 3 cent and 10 cent notes, Thomas Jefferson had lost his place among our nation’s money completely.
Members of Congress were the most outraged especially considering the drama that had unfolded around Clark just two years earlier. The man had been rightfully accused of using his position to solicit sexual favors from his female subordinates and now he was the face of the 5 cent note. So, on March 1, 1866, Representative Martin Thayer of Pennsylvania added the following amendment to an appropriations bill for the Treasury:
“Hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”
Thayer humorously demonstrated how teachers all over the country will have to do away with their old table of Federal currency and learn the one currently promoted by the Treasury.
Rep. James Garfield expressed his disagreement with the amendment, initially citing his belief that money should represent the leaders of the day. However, his argument quickly shifted into a prolonged and flowery defense of Spencer Clark:
“Sir, I take pleasure in saying a word for an abused man, who is not here to answer his accusers; and I say it, too, remembering the declaration of an ancient philosopher, that people love to hear accusation better than defense. I do not hesitate to declare it as my opinion that when the history of our financial struggles during the later war shall have been written; when all passion and prejudice shall have died away; when the events of the present shall be seen in the clear light of veritable history, this man, whose picture is now sneered at; this man, so little known to fame, and so unfavorably spoken of among many members of this House, will stand out in that history as a man most remarkable for genius and ability, for having accomplished a work which will take its place among the wonders of mechanism and useful invention, and for having saved to the Treasury, by his skill and fidelity, millions of money. Whatever people please to say concerning S. M. Clark and his antecedents, he has done his country signal service; and, sir, I believe his merits will some day be recognized by the American people as they have been and still are by those who know what he has done and is still doing in the public service.”
Representative James Brooks from New York, the Congressman who had started the call to investigate Clark two years ago and served as one of Garfield’s token Democrats in the committee could not let Garfield’s aggrandizement of Clark go without a response.
“What a eulogy he has pronounced upon a great hero of this war! When the name of Grant shall have faded away; when the magnificent victories of Sherman, from the mountains of Tennessee throughout all George, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, shall have been forgotten; … when even Lincoln shall have been buried with Julius and Augustus Caesar, there will arise one remarkable man; high on the horizon, and that is Clark, the printer of the public money!”
This response was met with laughter from the House. Garfield and Brooks then argued for some time about the past investigation into Clark before Brooks brought the attention back to the matter at hand.
“Sir, the honorable gentleman from Pennsylvania, Mr. Thayer is right. No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, all politics, and of all religions.”
In the end, the Representatives voted to put Rep. Thayer amendment in. When the amendment arrived in the Senate the only change made was to allow the current plates of notes to be used until their expiration in order to avoid the cost of halting production and purchasing new ones at this time. This was agreed to by both the Senate and House without dissent.
Finally on April 7, 1866, the appropriations bill was passed which contained the amendment banning living people from appearing on our money and stamps.
This policy still stands today. Coincidentally. the same appropriations bill that banned portraits of living people on money also approved the expenditure of $100,000 for the purchase of a property in Washington City “for the deposit and safe keeping of documentary papers relating to the soldiers of the army of the United States, and of the museum of the medical and surgical department of the army.” The property’s name? Ford’s Theatre.
Spencer Clark survived an investigation into his qualifications. He survived an investigation into his immoral and predatory behavior with his female clerks. Spencer Clark even survived the aftermath of the widespread embarrassment he had brought upon his government by putting his own face on money. However, could not survive one last scandal. On November 17, 1868, Clark tendered his resignation after an investigative committee found him guilty of…improper book-keeping. After leaving the Treasury, Clark acquired a position in the Department of Agriculture, eventually becoming the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Clark died on December 10, 1890 and is buried in Hartford, Connecticut next to his wife.
Spencer Clark was a failed businessman, a fake engineer, the Superintendent of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, a scumbag sexual predator, and man who put his own face on money. That’s quite a scandalous hidden history.
The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North by Michael Thomas Smith – a fascinating book which details Spencer Clark and the Treasury Scandal
What an incredible story! Didn’t think things of this nature occured in the Victorian era. Extremely well researched with captivating reading. Thanks!!