1883 Liberty Head Nickel

1883 liberty headHaving read back issues of the American Journal of Numismatics (first published in May 1866), dealer auction catalogues, and Mason’s Coin and Stamp Collectors’ Magazine, among other coin-collecting items of the era, I knew that the decade of the 1880s was one of discovery and excitement. Much of this can be laid on the doorstep of the 1883 Liberty Head nickel, the variety with the word CENTS nowhere on the coin. As is well known to many present readers, the new design of the nickel five-cent piece by Charles E. Barber gave the denomination simply as the large letter V on the reverse. Unscrupulous people gold-plated these new coins, cut reeding into the edges, and passed them off as $5 gold coins (of which more will be related).

The year 1883 began with the standard “Shield” nickel being produced, a style that had been launched in 1866, with a modification in 1867. In the meantime, in 1881 and 1882 several different pattern designs were made for a new nickel. Finally, the Liberty Head motif was decided upon. On January 8, 1883, Col. A. Loudon Snowden, superintendent of the Mint, authorized that the new design be used. Production commenced soon thereafter, and on February 1st the first pieces were placed into circulation.

Numismatists Take Note

In 1883 the American Journal of Numismatics was the premier periodical devoted to the coin hobby. The April issue included these mentions of the new coin:

MINT COINS FOR 1883: At the opening of each year demands are made at the Mint by coin collectors, Numismatic Societies, and others, for Proof coins, or sets representative of a year’s coinage. To meet this demand, special coins are struck as is well known, and sold at rates proportional to the extra labor involved. These sets are in gold, silver, nickel and copper. The regular Proof set of gold coins is sold for $43; the silver and minor $4.05, and exclusive of the trade dollar $3.05. The minor coins, embracing the old and new 5-cent coin, the 3-cent piece, and the bronze penny, are sold at 18 cents the set.

The stamping of the new 5-cent coin has increased the interest among collectors, and many requests are made for the set containing the old and new half-dime piece. Large orders have been received from the Northwestern States, Mississippi Valley, and the Pacific Coast, where there are few small coins, for the new 5-cent piece. This demand has been greatly increased by the descriptions of the new coin so widely printed.

The Mint supplies this coin in amounts of $5 each, and the parties to whom the coins are sent pay for the expressage, but if sent in sums of 420, the expressage is paid by the Mint itself. We have noticed boys peddling this new coin along the streets at 20 cents each, the price varying with the demand. Some impressions are found struck from a broken die. It is reported that all of this issue are to be recalled by order of Secretary Folger, and the dies altered by adding the word CENTS.

And in the same issue, this:

As has been mentioned on a previous page, the recent issue of a five-cent nickel is to be recalled, and another one coined with some alterations in the design. According to the best information we have yet received, the principal if not the only change is on the reverse, which is to have the word CENTS inscribed below the numeral of value, V, and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is to be placed above instead of below the wreath.

Coins to be Recalled

Soon, the Mint recognized its error, and the word CENTS was added. Meanwhile, over five million of the “error” nickels had been placed into circulation. The interest of numismatists was aroused immediately, especially when the American Journal of Numismatics as well as the popular press stated that these pieces were to be recalled. How exciting!

  1. Coulton Davis, a Philadelphia pharmacist who collected many series of coins, especially patterns, sent examples to certain friends, including one presented by him to the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society. The receipt of “the first emission of the five-cent nickel” was acknowledged at the Society’s May 15th meeting.

As the Mint would be calling them in, the 1883 nickels without CENTS were bound to have great value. Citizens began looking through their pocket change. Among these was young Farran Zerbe, a newsboy in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Years later, in autumn 1908 upon his re-election as president of the American Numismatic Association, Zerbe recalled:

You all know of the numismatists’ nightmare, the nickels without CENTS. I have a sentimental regard for this all too numerous and troublesome piece. It commanded my interest in our subject. That was in 1883, 25 years ago. So on this, the silver jubilee of my interest in numismatics, I know of no more prized gift to me, than to have been unanimously reelected president of the largest, most effective and progressive numismatic association the world has ever known.

This peculiar variety of 1883 Liberty Head nickel acted as a little salesman for the coin hobby to many others as well. Doubtless, hundreds or even thousands of new faces were attracted to the hobby as a result. This was an early-day equivalent to the ground-swell nationwide jump in numismatic interest beginning in 1999 when the first five varieties were launched in the 50-coin “statehood reverse” Washington quarter series.

How the Deception Worked

The prank of gold plating the new nickels and passing them out as $5 gold coins either spread rapidly or was so obvious that several clever people thought of it at the same time. It was related that in a large eastern city the scheme ran something like this:

A gold-plated nickel, the same diameter as the current federal gold $5 half eagle, would be tendered for the purchase of an item priced from one to five cents, such as a newspaper or a cigar. The clerk, gazing at the “five dollar” coin quickly, put it in the cash drawer and gave the purchaser the appropriate change, $4.95 or a few cents more.

When arrested, the passer of these pieces simply claimed that no statement was made that it was a five-dollar gold piece. The coin was simply given without comment to a clerk, who then assumed it was a five-dollar coin.

This caper attracted the attention of various writers, who in time related that a man named Josh was convicted in Boston (or Philadelphia or New York) of exchanging these gilded pieces, giving rise to the saying, “You’re joshing me,” when someone attempts a minor deception. Never mind that “josh” was already a part of American slang at that time!

Secret Service Operative Finnegas on the Trail

Henry Finnegas, an operative (as agents were called) of the Secret Service in San Francisco, filed the following reports, indicating that the nickel game was being played there. As nickel five-cent pieces did not circulate in the West at this time, there was even less chance that someone would recognize such pieces as a nickel.

San Francisco, April 1, 1883

Report for Friday, March 30.

Enclosed herewith you will please find a communication from D.M. White including the arrest of a man for attempting to pass a gilded 5¢ nickel (new issue). I called at the City Prison and ascertained that a man named Charles Ferguson about 4 o’clock this P.M. attempted to pass a 5¢ nickel of the new coinage upon a woman of the town for a $5 piece.

I talked with Ferguson who is a notorious rounder.3 He says a friend gave him the coin. None were found upon him. Ward, the office boy, was on duty from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. The following are my charges for services rendered and expenses incurred this day.

Phaeton fare: $0.25

Services: $8.00

Respectfully submitted,

Henry Finnegas

Operative S.F. District.


I swore to a complaint before U.S. Commission Sawyer under section 5457, revised statutes, charging Charles Ferguson with attempting to pass a coin in the resemblance and similitude of a $5 piece. Sawyer issued a warrant for his arrest.

I went to Police Court and saw prosecuting Attorney Coffey who asked the Court to send Ferguson over to me, this was done. I then arrested him: took him before Commissioner Sawyer for examination but as he (Sawyer) was otherwise engaged Ferguson was bound over in the sum of $500 to await examination which was set for 10 A.M. on the 2nd of April. I forward you by mail of this date, printed argument and additional points.…

Secret Service Operative Finnegas kept busy, and a report filed on Friday, April 7, 1883, told of activities of the preceding week, including this:

On the 2nd inst. Charles Ferguson was held in the sum of $1,000 by Com. Sawyer to answer the charge of attempting to pass coin in the resemblance and similitude of a $5 piece. He was committed to the above Jail. The coin was a new issue of the 5 cent nickel gilded. Ward was on duty from 9 A.M. until 4 P.M. The following are my charges for services rendered. [Invoice for $6 for his services and 20¢ for street car fare].

Finnegas’ report of Saturday, April 8, 1883, seems to indicate that more than one person was passing the golden five-cent pieces:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 5¢ nickel concerning what action should be taken in the care of persons who gild the five-cent nickel of the new issue.…

Indeed, this was true, as revealed by the same operative’s report of April 13:

Several persons engaged in the gold and silver plating business in this city have called upon me to ascertain if they could gild the new five-cent nickel without my interfering with them. I informed all such that if they gild the nickels they must perforate them or otherwise alter their appearance as to make it impossible for persons being deceived into receiving them for $5 pieces. Ward the office boy was on duty from 9 A.M. until 4 P.M.

Finnegas filed this on Saturday, April 15, 1883:

Testified as a witness before the U.S. Grand Jury, the bill against Michael Matholi charging him with having in possession four (4) counterfeit standard silver dollars with intent to defraud. Was ignored and he was discharged from custody. There was no proof that he intended to or had passed any.

An indictment was found against Charles Ferguson (alias) combining three counts.

1st: Charging in possession a counterfeit $5 piece with intent to defraud.

2nd: With attempting to have a counterfeit $5 piece.

3rd: With having in possession a coin of metal in the resemblance and similitude of a $5 piece and with attempting to have the same upon one Annie Fisher. The coin referred to as a five-cent nickel new issue gold plated is not his first indictment for this offense. Counsel for Ferguson will attack the indictment.

Twenty-three Grand Jury men full-framed were present, eleven voted to ignore the bill and it took the vote of the foreman to find a bill of indictment. The platers and money brokers here show great interest in the case which is looked upon as a bad one.

I need to be informed.

1st: As to the act authorizing the coining of the five-cent nickel new issue.

2nd: Who selected the design for the same and

3rd: Who approved of the design. The word “Cents” does not appear on the nickel that Ferguson attempted to have for a $5 piece. I am informed that counsel for the accused intended to make a point on this account.…

Respectfully submitted

Henry Finnegas

Operative S.F. District

And this account soon thereafter which reveals that the passing of a nickel resulted in a year in prison at hard labor. Yes, such things did happen in America:

Secret Service Operative Finnegas,

Report filed on Wednesday, April 26, 1883:

In the District Court of the United States for the District of California, April 1883 term Hon. Ogden Hoffman presiding judge.

Charles Furguson, alias Ferguson, was placed upon trial for attempting to pass a coin in the resemblance and similitude of a $5 gold piece. It was a gilded five-cent nickel new issue.

The prosecution was conducted by First Assistant United States Attorney Carroll Cook, Esq., who although a young man has had no superior (if indeed he has had his equal) as first assistant U.S. attorney. The prisoner was defended by R.M. Swain, late assistant prosecuting attorney of Police Court No. 1, San Francisco.

It was proved by the Government that on the 30th of March last, Ferguson attempted to pass a gold plated five-cent nickel for a $5 gold piece upon Annie Fisher a woman of the town.

Defendant’s counsel then asked the Judge to instruct the Jury to acquit the prisoner on the following grounds.

1st that the coin was not a counterfeit.

2nd that it was not in the resemblance and similitude of a $5 piece.

And 3rd that the coin was made at a mint of the U.S. by authority of the government.

Counsel made a lengthy argument in support of his client. Mr. Cook was about to reply when his honor Judge Hoffman interposed ruling that the piece was a counterfeit coin within the meaning of the statute. That the coin as it left the mint could not be passed as a $5 piece until the gilding was perfected. A nickel as it left the mint was put in evidence.

The case went to the Jury who quickly returned into court with a verdict of guilty. The sentence was one (1) year at hard labor in the State Prison at San Quentin, Cal. and a fine of $1.

Mr. Cook drew the indictment as three (3) counts under section 5457 and 5481 of the Revised Statutes. Ferguson was sentenced under section 5457.

This is the first case of its kind which has occurred in my District. I saw the agent of the Associated Press this morning and at my request he sent telegrams to the press announcing Judge Hoffman’s decision that the gilded nickel $5 is a counterfeit coin.…

Before leaving this case it is proper to refer to the very able manner in which Mr. Cook handled the case for the government…particularly when he dwelled upon the disastrous effects an acquittal would have upon the community especially small retail dealers and inexperienced persons.

At 3:40 P.M. I sent the following telegram, San Francisco, April 25th 1883, to James J. Brooks, Washington, D.C.:2 “Ferguson convicted of attempting to pass a gold plated nickel for a five dollar piece. Sentenced one year State Prison.”

Respectfully submitted

Henry Finnegas

Operative S.F. District

Seemingly, this scenario was replayed in other cities throughout the United States. The 1883 CENTS-less nickel became the problem of the day!

A Boon for the Numismatic Hobby

Although the 1883 without-CENTS Liberty Head nickel may have been the nemesis of the Secret Service, it created so much attention it was a boon for the numismatic hobby. All of a sudden, coins were in the forefront of the public’s interest and imagination.

For collectors the setting was already in place. The Civil War was history (having ended in 1865), silver coins were once again plentiful in circulation (having been withheld by the Treasury Department from 1862 to 1876), and the economy was fairly prosperous. Collecting things was a passion for many, as was history, the latter having been stimulated in 1876 by the Centennial of American Independence. Anyone today with a library of nineteenth-century state, county, and local history books (and I must confess to having more of these than probably any two people could ever use!) knows well that more local and regional history books were published in the 1880s than at any other time in the last century.

Collecting coins was already popular, and the cognoscenti enjoyed the auction catalogues of W. Elliot Woodward, John W. Haseltine, Edward D. Cogan, and others, and perused the pages of the American Journal of Numismatics. However, it was a rare numismatist who enjoyed only coins. Typically, those involved in the numismatic hobby also collected autographs, books, stamps, birds’ eggs, Indian artifacts, minerals, or one or another specialty or group.

The Later Story

What happened to the 1883 Liberty Head nickels? The story that the Mint would recall them prompted just about everyone to look for specimens, with the result that millions were saved—probably a generous proportion of the entire production. The result was that in later years, the 1883 without CENTS nickel was recognized as the single most common date in the nineteenth-century nickel five-cent piece series, despite many dates having substantially higher mintages.

There were so many such coins in the hands of collectors and dealers they had virtually no premium value 40 years later. In April 1929, Henry Chapman, billing himself as “America’s Leading Numismatic Dealer,” offered for sale such pieces, “Very Good to Fine” grade, for six cents apiece!

Time vindicates most numismatic purchase decisions, and it turned out that the 1883 nickel was no exception. In the 1930s, when coin collecting became one of America’s most popular hobbies—spurred on by the publication of Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins (1934) and his “National” coin albums, the price of the coin rose. And continued to rise. Today, a lightly worn piece is worth a few dollars, and a gem Mint State coin commands a three-figure price. They were worth buying. But the profits went to the grandchildren of those who bought such coins from dealers for 15¢ each in the 1880s.