23 June 2024

In for a Penny, In for a Pounding

If nothing else, check out the video at the bottom of the page. It’s worth the trip.

What, you want an engraved invitation?

You’re a guy standing against a wall, wishing you could quietly leave the party. Hours ago, the needle of your Reject-O-Meter™ fuel gauge bottomed against the Empty peg so hard it wrapped around the pin.

A bevy of girls floats by. Their queen bee in the impossibly tiniest dress pauses before you and holds out her hand. “No excuse you can’t phone.” She drops something into your palm and stretches up to your ear . “Here’s a dollar to pay for the first call.” Giggling, she and her cort├Ęge disappear into the crowd.

She’s given you a dollar to make a call, but without a number, you wonder how to ring her… Wait, the dollar. You inspect it carefully. Ah, clever girl, extra points for ingenuity. There along the edge are numbers: 201-032-5… On anniversaries decades later, you’ll take out that greenback and gaze at it fondly.

Making Change

You visit the county fair. In the arcade are machines, some antique, some modern, but they have one purpose. For only a couple of dollars, you can drop in a coin and these gadgets will flatten it into a bangle, a pendant, a charm for a charm bracelet.

In other words, you can pay to watch a press ruin your pocket change, rendering them unspendable. Your friends had claimed they’d placed pennies on railroad tracks† to achieve the same effect, but you weren’t sure you believed them.

Meanwhile, the barker’s buddy in the next tooth practices a different art. You give him two banknotes, a $10 bill and a $1 bill, and he folds the tenner, creating a ring for your girlfriend, or a tiny heart, or an origami bird, flower, or beast. When he finishes, you can see $10 peeking through the paper windings.

As you turn away, Mr Fancy-Folder Fingers pockets not the $1 payment, but your ten-spot minus one corner. After he starts folding, he switches your ten dollars and continues with a $1 bill.

Ties that Bind

In the late 1800s, a distant great-something-grandfather put his young wife aboard a train to travel by herself across the great land. He took out a ten-dollar bill, a veritable fortune at the time, and tore it in two. He gave one half to his wife and handed the other to the Pullman porter.

He told the railcar attendant, “Kindly take good care of my wife. She’ll give you the other half on arrival, and I thank you.”

Financial Crimes

These scenes have one thing in common– the commission of a crime. Like that tycoon trope of the magnate lighting cigars with a $5 bill, the vignettes above feature a federal violation of law, specifically Title 18 USC, Chapter 17, §331-333.

The subject is damaging, defacing, debasing, and destroying money. It’s an offense rarely prosecuted, but of the examples mentioned here, only one party might find himself under arrest. Which one do you suppose?

The reason defacing or destroying money is seldom prosecuted is a matter of intent, specifically an intent to commit fraud. Thus the one character in the opening scenes who is vulnerable to prosecution is the origami expert, the guy who switched a ten-dollar note for a one-dollar bill.

Penalties, Fines and Times

The same USC law specifies fines and prison sentences for violating the law. It’s particularly harsh regarding fine metals. Crooks and swindlers have shaved valuable coins since ancient times, much more difficult with e-currency.


I’m not aware of a definitive resolution, but legal experts have debated whether free speech supersedes currency law. In theory, you could dump a basket of bills in the public square and light a match with mainly your spouse and fire marshal to object.

It’s not well believed, but the law applies to legal foreign currency as well. If you foolishly shred a €10 note or run a Canadian coin through a penny press, the same law applies, except you open yourself to loonie ridicule. (Mary and Melodie are presently rolling their eyes.)

Riding the Rails

In case the law hasn’t sunken in, consider the laws of physics. Here’s a very expressive video of why you shouldn’t flatten coins on a railroad. Video © Landon’s Animated Wheelhouse.

  © www.SleuthSayers.org



  1. My father had an origami bird made out of a five dollar bill that he'd gotten in WW2 (probably in the Philippines)... He was so proud of it.

    1. When I was in middle school, I learned how to fold origami and I like to imagine I could still do so today. My dad received Scientific American and Martin Gardner featured an article on the art, probably focusing on the geometry.

      That summer, the family attended the State Fair. Amid the cultural exhibits was a Japanese booth where women were folding tiny birds (probably the most common origami creation). I watched and told the women I know how to do that. Most spoke little English, but another woman translated. I began to fold one of their paper squares as the women watched, gobsmacked that an American boy could create the diamond and continue folding until it turned into a swan, complete with flapping wings.

    2. I learned that one when I was a kid, too - and I can still do it! I love it.

  2. Loonie ridicule - grin - lovely insider joke! I didn't know it was against the law to deface currency! Man, the things I learn on Sleuthsayers :) Melodie


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