Ninger and his wife, Adelaide, arrived c. 1876 from Germany to live in Hoboken, New Jersey. He worked as a sign painter and then bought a farm in Westfield, New Jersey. He told his neighbors that he was receiving a pension from the Prussian army. On October 12, 1892 he moved to Flagtown, New Jersey.
Ninger began counterfeiting in 1878, and by 1879 the Treasury redemption bureau was aware of his work. Not having any clues as to Ninger's identity, he was named "Jim the Penman" by the Secret Service. Beginning with a $10 bill, he moved on to $20s and $50s, and later $100s. His first $100 was spotted by the Treasury in November, 1893. Ninger would buy bond paper from Crane & Company, in Dalton, Massachusetts, cut it to the same size as the $50 and $100 United States Notes he was copying, then soak the paper in a dilute coffee solution. He would align the paper over a genuine banknote, place the two on a piece of glass, and trace the resulting image. He used a camel’s hair brush to put colors on the note, imitated the silk threads with red and blue inks, and suggested rather than duplicated the intricate geometric lathework. Notably, he omitted the line crediting the Bureau of Engraving and Printing from all of his bills, and some of them were also missing the counterfeiting warning. When asked why he omitted the Bureau of Engraving and Printing credit on his bills, Ninger responded, "Because dey [sic] didn't make dem [sic]."
He worked for weeks at a time on each note, and this was profitable because at the time one of those notes was extremely valuable (about $2000 or $4000 in today's dollars).
He was apprehended by the United States Secret Service in March 1896 when he paid a bartender with a $50 banknote, the note got wet, and the ink began to smudge. Although first pleading not guilty, Ninger changed his plea to guilty, and was sentenced on May 29, 1896 to six years in the Erie County Penitentiary. At some point after his release he forged a few British pound notes. He died on July 25, 1924, at 77 years old.
Ninger was somewhat romanticized during his time, as almost a "Robin Hood"-like character, whose crimes were deemed "victimless", both because only the extremely wealthy could afford the bills that he was forging, and also because with the proper art connections, one could stand to profit by receiving a Ninger work. Ninger notes are illegal to possess; it is estimated that there are 20-30 notes in the hands of collectors, out of an estimated 700 made by Ninger. One week before being sentenced, Ninger only admitted to making 390 notes over his 18 year career.
- "Ninger Had No Witnesses. The Alleged Counterfeiter's Case Will Go to the Federal Grand Jury.". New York Times. April 21, 1896. Retrieved 2008-10-21.
The examination of Emanuel Ninger, alias Joseph Gilbert, who is charged with being engaged for twenty years in counterfeiting United States notes of large denominations with pen and pencil, was begun before United States Commissioner Shields yesterday.
- "Career of "Jim the Penman"". The Times (Philadelphia). 3 April 1896. p. 7. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- Stevenson, Jed (October 21, 2008). "Coins". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-10-21.
- Money of Their Own: The Great Counterfeiters. 1957.
I've written to nearly all of them, but no one seems to have heard of Emanuel and Adelaide Ninger of Flagtown, New Jersey, or of any of their four children. ... however he died in Reading, Pennsylvania at Richard Ningers farmhouse, Emanuel Ningers son. Ninger used to work in the top floor of the barn at the farm house on a marble table. The table currently resides with the new editor of this pages last editor.
- "The Marvelous Skill of "Jim the Penman"". Reading Times (PA). 7 August 1900. p. 3. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Federal Sleuths Not Stage Sort". New Oxford Item. 1 July 1915. p. 3. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- Murray Teigh Bloom. "The Money Maker". American Heritage (August/September 1984): pages 91–101.
- "Government Owes Kin of Famed "Money Artist" $12,000". The Sandusky Register. 29 July 1957. p. 7. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- "Forged 18 Years". Harrisburg Telegraph. 22 May 1896. p. 1. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.
- "A Counterfeiter Sentenced". The Times (Philadelphia). 30 May 1896. p. 1. Retrieved 20 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com.