The story of how the author of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, who was also an official of the Royal Mint, pursued with Javertian intensity London’s most brazen passer of bad coins.
Levenson (Science Studies/MIT; Einstein in Berlin, 2003, etc.) demonstrates a surpassing felicity in his brisk treatment of this late-17th-century true-crime adventure. One narrative difficulty is that there’s far more documentation about Isaac Newton than about counterfeiter William Chaloner, so the author is forced to rely heavily on an unreliable, anonymous biography of Chaloner published in 1699, not long after its subject was hanged for his crimes. Levenson is careful, however, to remind us continually of that biography’s flaws, and he digs out other information on the brash counterfeiter from public records and elsewhere, including Newton’s papers. The author cuts back and forth between the careers of his two main characters. We see Newton moving with focused ferocity through a variety of obsessions—the well known (mathematics, physics), the lesser known (alchemy, biblical prophecy) and the least known (his long career at the Mint). The details of Chaloner’s career are sketchy, but it’s clear he was both extraordinarily clever with mechanical devices and circumspect about his counterfeiting, rarely letting Player A on his team know what Player B was about and rarely getting within convictable range of any damning evidence. Chaloner tried to insinuate himself into the Mint, gave evidence at Parliamentary inquiries as if he were a disinterested authority on coinage, published pamphlets about monetary matters and, at the end, fought desperately and ingeniously for his life against Newton, who had initially underestimated his quarry. Levenson departs from the strong current of his narrative only when it’s necessary to explain a bit of London history or the workings of the legal and financial systems of the day.
Swift, agile treatment of a little known but highly entertaining episode in a legendary life.