The Counterfeit House
Built in 1840 in Adams County for the purpose of counterfeiting 50 cent pieces and $500 bills, the Counterfeit House has stood for nearly 17 decades as a museum, tourist destination and now haunted, crumbling structure.
In the rolling hills and holler of Adams County, a dilapidated white house sits on a ridge above the Ohio River. The structure looks pretty ordinary for a crumbling building, but as any good criminal knows, looks can be deceiving—for this is a tale of counterfeit money, trap doors, hidden rooms and secret drops in the dead of night.
The first half of the 19th century was a golden age for American counterfeiters. There was no national currency, no greenback—just an unregulated patchwork of more than 1,600 private banks and 7,000 different bank notes. It was during this age of economic confusion, or so the story goes, that a counterfeiter named Oliver Tompkins arrived in Adams County to build his dream house.
It was in the spring of 1840 that Tompkins acquired about 150 acres on Gift Ridge (today Gift Ridge Road) for the construction of his home. An engraver by training, Tompkins is said to have taken up counterfeiting in Cincinnati, 70 miles down the river. However, some say he came from New York City and was already on the run from the law when he arrived in Ohio.
Tompkins’ accomplice was Ann Lovejoy, who may have been his sister, or possibly, his mistress. A good way from the bustle of the city, Adams County seemed the perfect place for the two to set up shop. Steamboats carried them a steady stream of customers who are said to have come from Pittsburgh, Portsmouth and Cincinnati all to acquire the product Tompkins and Lovejoy were selling—top quality counterfeit. For just ten dollars, you could get a flawless 500 dollar bill. But first, you had to know the rules.
Open for Business
The deals went down like this: on the nights the house was open for business, Tompkins would place a lantern in the attic window, a signal that was visible from the river. The customer would dock at a gull called Tompkins Landing and then make the mile trek up to the house.
From there, the customer needed to open the house’s locked door, done by jerking the doorknob straight upwards and then turning it. Once inside, they walked down the wide hallway that led to a back doorway. Above that doorway was a windowless room where Tompkins performed his craft, silently watching over the transactions. But customers did not know that they were being observed, all they knew was that inside the door to the right existed a slot and in that slot existed a notch. Inside that notch would be counterfeit money to buy with real money. The customer would would make the exchange without ever seeing anyone.
One Fateful Purchase
Tompkins and Lovejoy ran their operation seamlessly for at least a year until one fateful purchase brought the law on their trail. One afternoon, the story goes, Lovejoy boarded a riverboat bound for Cincinnati and booked a hotel to stay the night. While there she went into a local general store and bought a black shawl, paying with a counterfeit bill and getting genuine currency in return—but the bill she tried to pass was quickly identified as a fake. When she realized government agents were trailing her, Lovejoy quickly returned to her hotel to burn the shawl and gather her things. Authorities soon discovered the partially burned garment, and Lovejoy was identified. But the agents were too late to catch her—by this time Lovejoy had escaped on the last boat to Adams County. Once home, she rushed the mile and a half up to the house to tell Tompkins of her narrow escape. They knew the law would soon be closing in. Apparently, government agents had recently been snooping around, and Tompkins had even shot one. Their only choice now was to flee.
The End of an Era
The very next day, the authorities arrived at Tompkins Landing. Like many before them, they walked the mile up to the house only to find it abandoned, without any trace of counterfeiting. Legend has it that Tompkins and Lovejoy had ridden off to Concord, Kentucky, six miles to the east, after stashing the evidence in a secret tunnel that ran to the river and dynamiting the entrance shut. But the tale of the Counterfeit House was far from ending, and the biggest rouse of all was only beginning.
Lore, and a Curious Structure
For decades, local lore cited the spirits of those who died in the Counterfeit House and still inhabited the building. However, neither spirits nor mortal could have withstood the storm that blew through Adams County in 2008. The structure’s roofing was ripped open, and one of the relic’s seven chimneys blew apart and crumbled to the ground with the blast. The damage turned into despair and now, in its current state, dilapidation. In the front of the house, a small gable window used for a signal light now appears dusty and cracked. The special hidden slot built behind an interior door, believed to be the place where the counterfeit money was exchanged for the purchase price, is full of cobwebs.
Pieces of roofing that covered three bedrooms on the east side of the house are now pulled up, exposing insulation, ceilings and antique furnishings to Ohio’s natural annual elements. Nearly a dozen trees cover up the facade and chimney. A single bat has settled in the center of the hallway on a rusted chandelier; his droppings cover old newspapers scattered on the ripped up floorboards.
The now broken-down structure on Gift Ridge that was once a hub of illegal business has stood for nearly 17 decades. “Most of the story of the Counterfeit House is legend, but supported by fact,” Stephen Kelley, historian and columnist, writes in the People’s Defender, the weekly newspaper of Adams County. For instance, to this day, there is a trick lock on the front door that would seem to be locked to the average observer, yet when the knob is lifted in a certain way, it will open.
Other curious architectural elements include the house’s seven chimneys, as only two are functional. Ductwork in the house would send smoke from the two real chimneys to all the other stacks, making them appear to be real. Today, secret compartments in the fallen chimneys are visible from inside the house. A visitor might also observe the ornate carpet where Tomkins used to watch over his transactions, which now hangs from the ceiling.
The Legend Today
According to Kelley and Carla Lynn Spires, the house’s current owner who still lives on the property, the legend indeed includes bloodshed. They agree with the account that Lovejoy was in Cincinnati using some of the counterfeit money and was noticed by authorities. She was then followed back to the Counterfeit House by a Pinkerton agent, who managed to operate the trick lock and gain entrance to the house through the front door. And they both note it was in the 10-foot by 45-foot hallway where Tompkins allegedly murdered the agent. The floor and a wall are reportedly still stained with blood. “I saw the blood stain with my own eyes when I visited the house,” Kelley writes. “That would have been in 1973.”
However, for Spires, the house’s legacy is more complex. Despite the fear in her eyes when she refused to enter the kitchen, saying it would give her “weird dreams for weeks,” and the faint memories she has of hearing the house’s broken organ playing in the dead of night, she still isn’t completely sold on the ghastly presence of Tompkins and his companions.
“Now, I don’t know about the legend, but I do know that certain ghosts were not ghosts,” she says laughing to herself. “There was a bloody handprint on the wall, and it did come back every time we painted, but not before the last coat.”
Spires humor about the house is especially poignant, given her family’s roots with the property. A portion of the farm was purchased by a great-great uncle of Jo Lynn Spires, Carla Lynn’sdeceased mother, in 1896. Her grandparents, John and Elizabeth Johnson, purchased the house in the 1930s. Jo Lynn—an only child—grew up in the house with her parents, John and Alberta Johnson, and her grandfather. Carla Lynn similarly spent each weekend of her childhood at the notorious home with her mother and sister.
A Labor of Love
“I enjoyed growing up there,” Spires says. “I knew every Saturday, in warm weather, that we had to get up and really clean, because someone would always come to see the house. But I loved it.”
Since 1986, a Spires woman has lived in a trailer behind the house, and for much of the time it was open as a museum each summer. Carla Lynn describes her mother’s determination to keep the museum open even during her battle with cancer as none other than a “labor of love.”
“Over 1,000 people have come to see in one year,” Spires says. “We’ve had 400 students come. We dressed up in period clothes and did a reenactment of the murder. They loved it.”
In the End
It wasn’t until November of 1851 when Lovejoy finally returned to the area—this time, with a coffin. She said Tomkins had recently died, and she wanted to bury him in Adams County. The funeral was held in the parlor of the Counterfeit House. The body of 33-year-old Tompkins had finally been put to rest—or so it was said. To this day, many are convinced the coffin actually held a wax dummy and that Tompkins had watched the whole thing from one of the secret chimney compartments. In the end, Oliver Tompkins’ most convincing counterfeit may well have been his very own death—or even further, his ability to live on in the legend that is the Counterfeit House.