Birth: Mar. 11, 1820
Death: Mar. 23, 1903
First Head of the Secret Service. When the Secret Service was formed in July of 1865, Wood became its first chief. Before, he had been a calvary officer in the Civil War and the Mexican War. It was during the Civil War that he went through many secret government missions across Confederate lines that made him a wanted man by the Confederacy. Many of the missions included secretly visiting Confederate prisoner of war camps in the South. The Secret Service's main objective at its beginning was to halt the counterfeiting of currency which was a serious problem during the Civil War. He was credited for breaking up one of the largest counterfeiters of the day, William Brockway. Wood also investigated the Lincoln assassination, getting confessions from some participants. He left the agency after a dispute over reward money. He died penniless, although a bill was in Congress at the time to secure the reward money was due. In 2001, retired Secret Service agents raised money for a monument to mark his grave and bring attention to his achievements.
The Beginnings of the Secret Service
The United States Secret Service was set up in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Its primary task was the suppression of counterfeit money. Within a decentralized system of over 1,600 banks and many other financial institutions issuing their own currency, counterfeiters had a relatively easy task. With the Legal Tender Act in 1862, which introduced the US legal tender currency known as “greenbacks,” a first step was taken towards creating a single currency for the United States.
William P. Wood, the first chief of the US Secret Service, was an unconventional individual within a government bureaucracy. A former detective and bodyguard, he had also run the prison in Washington, DC. Although somewhat controversial, Wood’s activities led to the establishment of a powerful agency. Operatives, as secret service agents were then known, rapidly gained a reputation for dedicated and forceful work. Towards the end of the century, the Secret Service had developed an impressive system of recording counterfeit notes and criminals by pioneering the use of photography.
Skilled engravers were tempted to work for counterfeiting rings, which would then “shove the queer” (sell or distribute the counterfeit money). Passing counterfeit money was often the work of confidence trickster, not infrequently women, who would be able to give the appearance of solidity and honesty.
By 1877 currency was issued solely by the government through the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. By then a professionally run Secret Service was making counterfeiting more difficult and a Federal crime, just as the Founding Fathers had provided for in the Constitution.