July 5, 1865 | Abraham Lincoln Authorized U.S. Secret Service

 
 

The professional criminal never willingly falls in the way of the Secret Service. The chase is as relentless as death…
—Philadelphia Telegram, 1899


It is one of those great coincidences of history that Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation authorizing the U.S. Secret Service on the same day that he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. But, when the agency was established as the Secret Service Division on July 5, 1865, its sole function was not to protect the president, but to combat counterfeiters. The first national paper currency, quickly dubbed greenbacks, was issued in 1862 as a measure against the rampant counterfeiting of the only paper currency of the time—printed notes from hundreds of individual state banks. Counterfeiters soon adapted and flooded the market with bogus greenbacks. The Secret Service’s job was to hunt down the makers and distributors of these fake bills—a job they did well.

The agency practically wiped out counterfeiting by 1890 and, as the nation’s primary detective, stepped into other federal investigations against fraud and corruption. The Secret Service only officially began protecting the president in 1913.