Gold-Plating Nickels and Passing them Off as $5

My article, A Platinum Coin to Pay Down the Debt, was written with tongue firmly in cheek, but the US Treasury has come up with some real coins almost as ridiculous. Our first example was the two-cent piece, followed by the three-cent piece, and the twenty-cent piece. Today we introduce the “Racketeer Nickel.”

To be honest, this wasn’t an actual mint-released coin. Rather, an enterprising soul took advantage of yet another example of governmental stupidity.

The Shield Nickel, issued from 1866 to 1883 was never a popular coin. It replaced the silver half dime which disappeared from circulation, along with most other coins, in the economic turmoil of the Civil War.

In 1883 the Mint issued a new 5¢ coin with the head of Liberty on the obverse and a Roman “V” meaning “5” on the reverse. The word “cents” didn’t appear anywhere on the coin. To an enterprising young man named Josh Tatum, it represented a “golden” opportunity.

According to the story, Mr. Tatum noticed that the new nickel was about the same size as the five-dollar gold coin, and their obverses (faces) were similar.. He also realized that there was nothing on the coin to denote what the denomination was. Young struck up a partnership with a friend who was skilled in the art of electroplating. Using a 24-carat gold electroplate, they were able to convert many thousands of the new five-cent pieces into what appeared to be five-dollar gold coins, and to further the illusion, they reeded the edges.

                            1883 Racketeer Nickel                                                                         1883 $5 Gold Piece

That was all Josh needed. He went from town to town, hitting stores and purchasing five-cent items. Each time he would lay down one of the newly-created “five-dollar gold coins,” and often the clerk would return $4.95 change.

Like all things of this nature, Tatum was eventually found out and arrested. however, in court, Tatum was acquitted of the major charge because witnesses testified that he never actually asked for change. He couldn’t. Josh Tatum was a deaf mute and was unable to say anything. All he ever did was put the coins on the counter and accept, in return, the purchased five-cent items and a gift of $4.95, which he happily accepted. The jury ruled that the merchants actually defrauded themselves.

Tatum’s efforts prompted the government to immediately suspend the minting of the new nickel and later in 1883 changed the die to include the word “cents” under the Roman numeral “V” on the coin’s reverse.

By the way, if you want one, gold-plated 1883 nickels are available on ebay for between $10 and $20.

Another rumor, dating back to the 1880s, is that one of the words used for for playing a joke on somebody, “joshing,” memorializes Mr. Tatum.

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