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29 April 2017
Morning Sedition

A Suitcase Full of Dead Presidents

Hundred-thousand dollar bill with Woodrow Wilson

"A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable."

William Bryk

The briefcase full of money is a movie cliche familiar to all. But exactly how much money fits into a briefcase? Would a million dollars really fit? Consider this famous story told about Frank Sinatra:

Another story that made the rounds, then and now, and later portrayed in the film, The Godfather, was that Rocco Fischetti had several travel bags stuffed with two million dollars, the proceeds from dope sales that was owed to Lucky Luciano. Fearing that he was being tailed by narcotics agents, which he was, and terrified that he would be stopped and searched as he left the United States, Fischetti had brought Sinatra along to carry the bags into Cuba because Fischetti knew that, traditionally, starstruck customs agents didn't check celebrities' baggage.

None of it was true. The money in the suitcase story was spread by a writer named Lee Mortimer who disliked Sinatra intensely and at one time the dispute brought the two men to blows. Years later the FBI expanded on Mortimore's story who said that Sinatra carried the money to Lansky in one briefcase.

For decades Sinatra denied the story saying, "If you can show me how to get two million dollars into a briefcase, I'll give you the two million dollars."

The Short Return of Charlie Lucifer

Hundred dollar bill with Ben Franklin

Ok, so the game is on. Can a million bucks fit into a suitcase? Packing a suitcase full of enough bucks to buy an election used to be a lot easier. Until 14 July 1969, specifically, when the Federal Reserve announced that the "$500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 would be discontinued immediately due to lack of use." Mmmm-hmmm. I think we all know the real reason: density. It's a lot harder to lug around multiple suitcases of $500 bills without being noticed. (I doubt criminals would want to use larger bills; how would you change them or use them to pay a bar tab?) But back to our question: what about the suitcase full of retirement money?

Actually, a million dollars’ worth of $100 bills weighs a lot less. A single Federal Reserve note–of any denomination–weighs one gram. Ten thousand $100 bills weighs 10 kilograms: roughly 22 pounds. It’s bulky but manageable.

Still, it would have been easier half a century ago, when the United States still looked beyond the Benjamin. Imagine peeling off a $500, $1000 or $5000 bill. Today we might refer colloquially to $500 bills as "Williams" (for William McKinley), to $1000 bills as "Grovers" (Grover Cleveland) and to $5000 bills as "Jameses" (James Madison). There was also a $10,000 bill we would have had to call "a Salmon" (after Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln). The last of these was printed in 1945, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Treasury Dept. agency charged with engraving Federal Reserve notes (and White House invitations, incidentally). They were withdrawn from circulation in 1969, supposedly due to declining demand.

At one time, the United States issued a note in an even higher denomination: a Series 1934 gold certificate, bearing a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, for $100,000.

Bills: Big Money by William Bryk

Stack of Bills

Rather than just do gedanken experiments this fellow did the math:

The largest U.S. bill in circulation is the hundred dollar bill, and it takes 10,000 of those to make one million dollars. Ten thousand bills. That is the smallest size you can get a million dollars in cash.

...

Next I visited Kinko's copies, where they have an industrial paper-cutting machine. I asked them to cut the 8?x11 sheets of paper into bill-sized mini-sheets. They asked about my intentions, and when they found out about my counterfeiting plans, they reminded me that I would not be able to pay for the cutting service with fake bills.

...

After separating the paper, I designed and printed some paper bands for my counterfeit cash. The bank teller had told me that hundreds are wrapped with purple bands. She asked me about my intentions, and when she found out about my counterfeiting plans, she reminded me that I would not be able to deposit fake bills.

How Much is Inside a Million Dollars

So, to answer the question: "can you cram a million bucks into a briefcase?" Yup, you can if you use a reasonably-sized briefcase. If this turns out to be of practical use to you, pop a few dead presidents over to me.

Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Uhh, uh-huh, yeah
It’s all about the benjamins baby
Goodfellas, uhh

— Puff Daddy, "It's All About the Benjamins"

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