William E. Brockway (#32)

William E. Brockway (1822-1920), aka E. W. “Bill” Spencer, “Long Bill”–Counterfeiter

William E. Brockway. Illustration by David Birkey http://cargocollective.com/dbillustration

William E. Brockway was the most prominent American counterfeiter of the 19th century, noted for the length of his career and his use of new printing technologies. His criminal exploits and connections could fill a book, but to get a flavor, check out his mentions in:

http://numismatics.org/kings-of-counterfeiting/ (American Numismatics Society)

Three Years with Counterfeiters, Smugglers, and Boodle Carriers: With Accurate Portraits of Prominent Members of the Detective Force in the Secret Service. Boston: Jackson, Dale & Co., 1875

A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States 1st edition by Mihm, Stephen (2007)

Brockway would likely be more famous, were it not for the presence during much of his lifetime of another active forger, Charles O. Brockway (the two were not closely related). Charles O. Brockway displayed little honor among thieves, and for a time was on the payroll of the United States Secret Service helping to arrest other counterfeiters. Many newspapers and police got the two Brockways mixed up, and attached Charles O.’s sins to William E.

William E. Brockway hailed from Saybrook, Connecticut; but his parentage is unknown. In later years, he claimed that he was born as William E. Spencer, and had been orphaned and taken in by a Brockway family. However, at the time he claimed this, he was attempting to maintain a family in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn under the name Edward W. Spencer, and many assumed that he was just attempting to explain why he was using that alias. When Brockway died in 1920, he was buried in a New Haven, Connecticut graveyard that contained both Brockways and Spencers, but his gravestone says Brockway.

One report suggests that as a young man, Brockway worked in the New Haven painting studio of Samuel F. B. Morse, who attended Yale. In 1843, at age 21, Brockway married Louisa H. Olmsted, a cousin of the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1846, they had a son, William E. Brockway, Jr. However the boy died a year later, in 1847. The child’s death coincides with the onset of Brockway’s first known criminal activity. Another child, daughter Louisa Brockway, was born between 1847 and 1849.

In the late 1840s, Brockway was apprenticed to a New Haven printer, whose customers included Banks seeking to manufacture their own notes–paper currency, at that time, was produced by individual banks, not the Federal government. Brockway was encouraged by his employer to attended classes at Yale conducted by America’s first professor of science, Benjamin Silliman. From Silliman, Brockway learned the magic of voltaic batteries and the process of electroplating. He realized that he did not need to steal the bank’s engraved plates to make copies of them–all he had to do was get an impression of the plate, using a thin sheet of copper foil. From that impression, he could reproduce the plates exactly.

Brockway used this method to start counterfeiting between 1847 and 1848. However, it did not take long after the high-quality notes were circulated for suspicion to fall on him. He was captured in Hudson, New York in 1849 after being identified by some of the agents he recruited to pass the money. Louisa, his wife, came to Hudson to try to extract him, but was herself caught with counterfeit notes.

Brockway spent the first five years of the 1850s in prison, and upon his emergence, remarried. What had happened to Louisa is not known. His new wife was Frances D. Mayne, born in Ireland.

Between 1856 and 1866, Brockway and Frances (Fannie) had three children: Frances J., born in 1856; William E., born in 1860; and Caroline, born in 1866. Sometime before 1865, they moved to Canarsie, Brooklyn, where the Brockways assumed the name Spencer. Brockway is found in census records from 1865 through the 1880s as “Edward W. Spencer, broker.” The son, William E. Spencer, grew up to be a respected physician.

Meanwhile, Brockway’s daughter from his first marriage–Louisa Brockway–was sent to Europe for her schooling. While there, she met a Belgian businessman, Frederick Schafer-Lafond, and became his wife. They had two children: Frederick Jr., born in 1866; and Gertrude, born between 1870 and 1872. Louisa’s husband Frederick died in the early 1880s. Louisa then took up with a Russian merchant named Wilhelm E. Jetzkewitz. He took Louisa and her children to Riga, Latvia. However, he went broke sometime around 1883, and Louisa left him (perhaps after bearing him a child).

Louisa came back to the United States in 1884, and while in New York was romanced by a publicity agent/reporter named Edward Campbell Allison. Allison was little more than a small-time huckster, which Louisa realized after a few years, and divorced him.

Her daughter Gertrude Schafer-Lafond, while still a teen of 15-17, married Charles P. Wootton of Boonton, New Jersey–the Woottons were an old, wealthy family of Boonton. She bore Charles Wootton two children: a daughter, Lorna L Wootton; and Harlan Spencer Wootton.

What’s interesting about this is that Brockway’s great-grandson, Harlan Wootton, was given the middle name “Spencer,” though Spencer was the name Brockway used with his second wife, not his first wife from who Harlan descended. So this is evidence that perhaps Brockway had told the truth–he was a Spencer.

When William E. Brockway was arrested again for counterfeiting in 1895, the newspapers mention that his granddaughter, Gertrude Wootton, was by his side in the courtroom.


The infamy of the Brockway name ruined the marriage of Gertrude and Charles P. Wootton. They divorced, and she remarried the ex-patriate British artist Reginald Bathurst Birch, illustrator of the novel Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Brockway died in 1920 at age 98, having outlived all his fellow criminals and the authorities that tracked them.

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