The man with the elaborate signature
Francis E. Spinner, the nineteenth century U.S. Treasurer who developed an elaborate signature to prevent counterfeiting of currency, spent time in his youth apprenticed to saddle and harness maker David DeForest in Amsterdam.
Spinner was born in German Flats in the western Mohawk Valley in 1802, the oldest of nine children. His father, Reverend John Spinner, was a German Roman Catholic priest who had become a Protestant and married Magdalene Brument. The Spinners came to the United States in 1801. John Spinner was pastor of two German-speaking Dutch Reformed churches in Herkimer and German Flats.
In a 1937 history, Rev. W.N.P. Dailey wrote of Spinner, “A week after the child was born the house burned and the mother, barefooted, carried her infant through the snow to a neighbor’s. As a lad he showed great taste for books but his father insisted on his learning a trade.”
Spinner first was apprenticed to a confectioner in Albany. His father moved him to Amsterdam when he found out the young man was not learning how to make confections but was serving as a salesman and bookkeeper in Albany.
The first organized book collection in Amsterdam was the Union Library, founded in 1805. Spinner was reported to have read every book in the library when he lived in Amsterdam in the early 1820s.
DeForest’s saddle shop was on the south side of the Mohawk River in what is now Amsterdam. But when the Erie Canal opened in 1825 that south side community became known as Port Jackson for a time.
According to an Amsterdam newspaper column from the 1870s, Spinner had a close call when the first Amsterdam Mohawk River bridge was under construction in 1821. Spinner was climbing along an unfinished part of the structure when it began to give way. Spinner jumped to safety as part of the bridge collapsed.
Spinner returned to Herkimer County in 1824 where he married Caroline Caswell of Herkimer and rose to prominence, eventually as a banker. He also was a major general in the state militia and sheriff of Herkimer County. He was one of the commissioners involved in construction of the state asylum for the mentally ill in Utica.
A Republican, he served in Congress from 1855 to 1861. President Abraham Lincoln named Spinner the U.S. Treasurer following a recommendation from Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.
During the Civil War, Spinner recommended that women be hired as clerks in that so many men had become soldiers. Despite some opposition, he hired 100 women and kept them on after the war ended.
Spinner’s elaborate signature became the best known handwriting in America. He told a magazine writer that he consciously developed his signature while he was sheriff, asylum commissioner and banker.
In 1875 he resigned as U.S. treasurer in a dispute with a new secretary of the Treasury who would not give Spinner final say over who would serve on his staff. That same year Spinner ran unsuccessfully for New York State comptroller. He relocated to Jacksonville, Fla. and died in 1890. He is buried in the Mohawk Cemetery in Mohawk in the Herkimer area.
After his death, the women he had hired to work in the Treasury Department raised $10,000 for a bronze statue of Spinner, first located at the private Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. In 1909 the Daughters of the American Revolution had the statue moved to Myers Park in Herkimer.
The statue has this quote from Spinner, “The fact that I was instrumental in introducing women to employment in the offices of the government gives me more real satisfaction than all the other deeds of my life.”