Dec. 4 2007 01:48 AM

The ballad of the Million-Dollar Bill Man


At the top of the hour on NPR, they tell a joke so you won't feel too depressed from all the bad news you just heard about the economy or all the bad news you're about to hear about traffic on the 805.

On the last day of November, at the end of the 5 a.m. hour, the joke was that some stupid hick in South Carolina tried to deposit a million-dollar bill in the bank, but there is no such thing as a million-dollar bill, so it was off to the slammer for the dummy!

It was such a rip-roarin' knee-slapper that it went global. It has to be the biggest story out of Clearwater, S.C., since—ever.

The NPR bit was brief, so it didn't even matter what the guy's name is. But newspapers have a paragraph to fill up, so they squeezed as much hilarity as possible out of the AP wire story.

Turns out the idiot is from Augusta, Ga., and his name is Alexander D. Smith. Lt. Michael Frank, spokesperson for the Aiken County, S.C., sheriff, said Smith walked into Regions Bank and handed the fake million-dollar bill to a teller, who then called the sheriff's office. Smith allegedly cursed at bank employees when they refused to open an account for him. We weren't told what the curse was, but we can imagine it was something like, “I am Alexander D. Smith, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht. Fuck you.”

They arrested “the million-dollar-bill man,” as he was dubbed, on charges of disorderly conduct and two counts of forgery, the other being his recent purchase of cigarettes with a stolen check.

Bloggers and commenters went off on Smith, hurling insults at him for being such a frickin' moron. A few characteristic reader comments, from NBC, Wonkette and Germany's websites, respectively: “this guy is dumb. who in there [sic] right mind would try to do this?” “Let us be clear: this r-tard was from a particularly retarded part of Georgia.” “Are some people just stupid??? I swear some people on this earth need to aim for darwin [sic] awards or something. Help clean the gene pool a bit.”

Even at WDRD, the CBS affiliate in Smith's hometown, folks wanted to clarify that Smith is an atypical Augustan: “Now this was just plain old stupid. Knowing there is no million dollar [sic] out there. Guess some folks just don't use the sense they were born with.”

But none of them really knows a damn thing about Alexander D. Smith—only that he is not a millionaire, probably not even close, and that he committed one successful nonviolent crime (buying cigarettes with a forged check) and one startlingly unsuccessful one. One question they might've asked: Where did the bogus bill come from?The bill, shown in the articles, is clearly a Christian religious tract disguised as a million dollars, though none of the articles mentions it. The tract, printed by Living Waters Ministries of Los Angeles, tells the unlucky sap who picks it up that the only real wealth is in this group's brand of heaven.

According to Allie Martin of the American Family Association Online, the Secret Service thought these gospel tracts looked too much like real money and, in June of last year, seized 8,300 of the tracts from a ministry in Texas. The federal agency confiscated them after someone in North Carolina reportedly tried to deposit one of the bills in a bank account. Apparently, Smith is not the only one out there who found the million-dollar Jesus bill irresistibly believable.

In order to avoid further federal action, Living Waters Ministries has since complied with the feds' order to make the fake bills more fake-looking. Smith tried to pass one of the older, more convincing (but only to stupid folks) bills.But the question still unanswered is: What motivated Smith to try to open an account with the artificial million in the first place? Everyone assumes Smith was stupid enough to think it might work, but there are other possibilities. And beyond that is the audacity of his having chosen the path articulated as the wrong one on these fake paper fortunes with which evangelicals have been littering the hard-knock streets.

Since nobody seems to be above constructing a reductive identity for Alexander D. Smith, here's another:Alexander D. Smith is not merely stupid. He is uneducated. He dropped out of school at 11, left home at 13 and lived on the streets until joining the Army. In Iraq, Alex's Humvee blew up and scattered pieces of his new friends all over the sand. He decided not to return to Augusta because it harbored memories of the alcoholic father who used to beat him in the face with a leather belt and sexually abuse his younger sister, who committed suicide at 16 by overdosing on her mother's antidepressants. Alex drank to push the memories down and also had trouble holding a job. He knows about post-traumatic stress disorder but fears it would be weak to admit he's messed up.

One drunken miserable day, after smoking his last stolen cigarette, he found the fake bill on the street and, just for the hell of it, decided to brazenly perform the absurd act of opening a million-dollar bank account. But when the bank people called the cops on him, he cursed them out and just waited for the cops to come and get him so he could at least get a damn meal in the jail.

Of course, my Alexander D. Smith is just as phony as an evangelical million-dollar bill and its false opposing promises: unearned wealth versus a fluffy paradise. Maybe Smith really is nothing but a moron on his way to jail. But at least he chose the stupid role of Outrageous Outlaw over Timid Sheep. At least now, and for the rest of his life, everyone in Augusta and Aiken County will know that Alexander D. Smith is the Million-Dollar Bill Man.    Write to and


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