All posts by Jesse Kraft

“The Right of Trial by Jury Shall be Preserved” . . . Thanks to Numismatics

While few people truly hope to find themselves before a court of law, most should be happy that a jury is present when on trial (fig. 1). In the midst of such tense scenarios, few individuals stop to think (let alone care) about the historical processes that led to that development. However, even fewer recognize that a specific numismatic incident helped secure this right to American citizens.

Figure 1: A trial by jury

In May of 1786, the General Assembly of Rhode Island authorized the printing of £100,000 in legal tender bills of credit (fig. 2). On its own, this was no strange occurrence. By this time, all the other newly-formed states of the Union had also issued paper currency, which was their legal right under the Articles of Confederation. Not unlike the paper currency of several other states, these notes were made a legal tender that “shall be received in all Payments” in the state. However, in August, the General Assembly further amended the legal tender status of the bills to be enforced by courts summarily without a jury trial or appeal.

Figure 2: A £3 note of Rhode Island, May 1786. Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

By this time, 170,000 notes in 12 different denominations were released into circulation (6d, 9d, 1s, 2s6d, 3s, 5s, 6s, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and 3 pounds). Unlike present-day money, colonial and pre-federal currency was issued in payment for specific objectives, such as the compensation of troops for a particular war or the construction of a specific building or utility. The May 1786 Rhode Island notes were issued to amortize a group of 4% 7-year loans on realty and known as the Tenth Bank.

Quickly, the legal tender status of the notes and, particularly, the juryless trial that ensued if a note was refused became a hot topic in the state. By September of that year, the case of Trevett v. Weeden had worked its way up the Rhode Island Supreme Court and heard by Justice David Howell. Everyone saw the inconsistency in the law, especially since the Constitution of Rhode Island had already guaranteed a trial by jury. The senior counsel for the defense, General James M. Varnum (fig. 3), successfully made the case that the colonial constitution of Rhode Island, despite being nullified by the American Revolution and held no legal footing, “continued in vigor as a part of the unwritten constitution of the new State.” The Court agreed and, in turn, gave them the power to decide on the constitutionality of any piece of legislation presented to them.  On September 26, the May 1786 Currency Act has the distinction of being the first law in the United States to be declared unconstitutional and voided.

Figure 3: James M. Varnum, senior counsel for the defense of Trevett v. Weeden (1786).

By December of 1786, the illegal features of the original act were amended, though the notes still remained a tender. In September 1789, their legal tender status was officially repealed, as the bills had depreciated down to only 10% of their stated values. Between 1793 and 1803, more than 96% of the original notes were burned by the State. Today, the legal right of trial by jury is protected by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted as one of the Bills of Rights on March 1, 1792. For this, we have the Rhode Island currency of May 1786 to thank.

John Gibbs: Stagecoach Operator Turned Token Innovator, Turned Counterfeiter

Opportunity often leads to innovation. Sometimes the events that contribute to an evolution of this nature are well-known and documented, while other times they are lost to history and only able to be speculated by present-day researchers. This is the case with the career of John Gibbs. In the course of the 1830s, his profession took a radical turn. While the exact details are currently unknown, the numismatic evidence of how his occupational path evolved creates a compelling story.

John Gibbs was born in Birmingham, England in 1809 and came to the United States as a young man with his father, William, having settled in Belleville, New Jersey. He proved to be very skillful and competent at a young age, and by 22 years old he owned and operated a stagecoach line that ran from Belleville to Newark (3 miles), and to New York City (8 miles). While little is known about the coach itself, Gibbs had a token struck for passengers to use. After purchasing a token, a passenger could simply exchange the piece for fare, and allowed Gibbs and other operators to not waste time waiting for customers to find the correct amount due or to have to provide change to customers. In 1831, this truly was an innovation and considered the first transportation token struck in the United States. On the obverse, the token reads “USM \ STAGE \ I. GIBBS | BELLEVILLE & NEW YORK,” while the reverse inscription states that the token was “GOOD FOR ONE RIDE \ TO \ THE \ BEARER” (fig. 1).

Figure 1. United States, transportation token of John Gibbs, ca. 1831. ANS 0000.999.2281.

It was also around this time that Gibbs and Joseph Gardner leased a building on the property of Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—a brass-rolling firm—under the name Gibbs, Gardner & Co. From their landlords, Gibbs and Gardner procured brass sheet stock to manufacture buttons. Like other button-manufactories (most notably those in Birmingham, England), their skills came in handy to produce base-metal coinages during times of coin shortages. As a result, Gibbs, Gardner & Co produced some of the earliest Hard Times tokens in the mid-to-late 1830s for a plethora of private firms. He even made one for himself that states “J. GIBBS MANUFACTURER \ OF \ MEDALS \ AND \ TOKEN \ &c. | BELLEVILLE \ NJ.” The reverse displays a brigantine with the inscription “AGRICULTURE AND COMMERCE” (fig. 2).

Figure 2. United States, store card token of John Gibbs, ca. 1833. ANS 0000.999.30590.

Soon, his business began to thrive. Locals began to call the establishment “The Belleville Mint,” and other orders came in, most notably from individuals in the Montreal, Quebec area beginning in 1836. These were in the form of the “bouquet sou” tokens of Lower Canada. The Belleville Mint was not the first to strike these pieces, as a mint in New York State struck 500,000 pieces for the Bank of Montreal the previous year. These tokens proved popular in fulfilling the need for small change, and other individuals began to speculate on the them. In 1836, exchange broker, Dexter Chapin, commissioned the Belleville Mint to strike bouquet sou tokens and imported them into Lower Canada. While the quantity is not currently known, the Belleville Mint used at least 13 sets of dies, so it was, by no means, a trifling amount. These are, essentially, imitations of the pieces commissioned by the Bank of Montreal. Ultimately, others in Birmingham, England and Montreal also created dies and struck coins for this issue (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Lower Canada, copper sou, ca. 1835. ANS 1949.65.17.

The Belleville Mint also struck a token for William Gibbs, the father of John. The obverse features a bull facing right with the inscription “A FRIEND TO THE CONSTITUTION.” The reverse, however, closely resembles that of a bouquet sou token, though with a legend that reads, “W. GIBBS. AGRICULTUREIST | N. YORK” (fig. 4). This was, perhaps, the earliest inclination that the Belleville Mint was involved with striking the pieces for Lower Canada.

Figure 4. United States, copper token of William Gibbs, ca. 1835.
Image Courtesy Heritage Auctions.

While the bouquet sou tokens that the Belleville Mint struck can be considered imitations and not counterfeits—since they were accepted by the public as one in the same series as the originals, were (for the most part) were of similar weight to the originals, and the originals were not authorized by a legal entity—true counterfeiting efforts was not above the Belleville Mint. As early as 1835, large amounts of counterfeit coins flowed from the presses of this establishment. In June of that year, the operation was raided, the equipment seized, and Joseph Gardner, his wife, and an individual named John Campbell were arrested. The police discovered dies for Spanish and Mexican dollars, 1831 French five-franc coins, and a bag of counterfeit Haitian coins. In August of 1835, another haul of counterfeit coinage from the Belleville Mint was discovered by officials, when the schooner Charles Denison, sailed by Captain Cox arrived in New York City with 380 boxes, each containing 1,200 counterfeit dollars of Brazil (a total of $456,000), albeit struck completely in copper. At the time, however, United States law did not criminalize the counterfeiting of foreign copper coinage (only gold and silver), and the ship and its cargo were set free. The coins were then transported to South America where they were silver plated and released into circulation in Brazil.

The Belleville Mint also purportedly struck copper coins for Liberia, Brazil, and Haiti (fig. 5). However, some sources note that Stevens, Thomas & Fuller—from whom Gibbs and Gardner purchased their metal—struck these coins. It is also possible that “the Belleville Mint” consisted of both Stevens, Thomas & Fuller and Gibbs, Gardner and Co.—the two companies simply merged as one in the mind of the public. Furthermore, the legality of these pieces is also in question. Were they officially commissioned from the local entities of these places (like the Hard Times tokens), or outright counterfeits? More research is needed to fully answer these questions.

Figure 5. Liberia, copper cent, 1833. ANS 1940.160.1599.

Later in life, Gibbs changed professions once again. By the early 1840s, the need for and popularity of Hard Times tokens subsided and orders stopped coming in. For Gibbs, perhaps this also led to the demise of his “front.” Without producing tokens for local merchants, how could he continue to cover up his clandestine operation of producing counterfeit coinage? By 1846, he left Belleville for New York City and set up shop on Forsyth Street. By 1856, he was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where he manufactured shade fixtures, buckles, lamp-burners, and other goods. Unfortunately, Gibbs did not leave behind any known written sources to help tell his story, and only the basics of his life are known through official documents, but the numismatic evidence that he produced allows for pieces of one man’s life, the history of metallic production in New Jersey, and the interconnectedness of this area to other, far-off places of the world in the 19th century to be better understood by present-day researchers.

The Free Silver Campaign of 1896 and its Influence on African-American Voters

In the latest issue of the ANS Magazine, Helena Kagan wrote an admirable article that articulated the nuances of the Free Silver campaign led by Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, during the Presidential race of 1896. Republicans, with William McKinley as their candidate, were in favor of keeping the gold standard as the sole basis for our nation’s currency. This group of monometallists was dubbed the “St. Louis platform.” Democrats on the other hand were for the free coinage of silver, allowing silver and gold to circulate together at a rate of 16:1—polymetallists known as the “Chicago platform.” Notably, as Kagan concludes, Bryan and the Free Silver campaign was not a mere blip in United States politics that was gone by the next election cycle, but one that had initiated a shift of progressive ideals towards the Democratic Party that culminated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who often receives credit for this turn. In fact, Kagan notes that much of the New Deal had incorporated much of the Democratic platform of 1896 and the basic motives for Bryan are now fully implemented into the national monetary system. While the United States uses neither gold nor silver coinage, the fiat currency now in circulation largely encapsulates the spirit of the Free Silver campaign.

In the 1890s, there was, perhaps, no other group of people where this shift was more apparent than with African-American voters. Despite being largely disenfranchised and driven from the political process in much of the United States, various African-American leaders voiced their opinion on the topic of the currency standards of the United States. A number of these leaders backed the Democrats on the free coinage of silver, even going as far as throwing their entire support behind the Democratic Party and against the Party of Lincoln, supporting the same Democrats who were the most active in keeping African-Americans voters from participating in the political processes. In May of 1895, for instance, the Daily Public Ledger commented that “the Democratic Party is always for something free. It has advocated free whisky and Free-trade, and of course it must next declare for free silver. The only thing which the Democrats did not want free was the Negro.”[1]

In his Advice to the Colored Voters of the United States (1896), John Duker, African-American author and proprietor argued two main reasons of why the usage of silver alongside gold would be beneficial to the economy, and why this would not reduce the national currency to “commercial demoralization,” as many monometallists had predicted. The first is that the usage of silver “will give this country the full benefit of its product of the white metal, which is more than one half of the output of the world.”[2] Under the gold standard, the Treasury Department clearly did not use silver to maximum capabilities. The millions of ounces of silver that the federal government was required to purchase—as stipulated in the Bland-Allison Act of 1878—were coined into silver dollars and placed into Treasury vaults, where they remained until the 1950s and 1960s, only to be melted or sold for face value. Duker also stated that the usage of silver would also “increase the circulation medium, or foster business enterprises and increase wages.”[3] With a bimetallic system, more money could circulate, which would result in more business, better wages, and an overall more efficient economy.

Figure 1. George E. Taylor, African-American journalist and politician, helped sway the decisions of voters towards the Free Silver campaign.

George Edwin Taylor (1857–1925), African-American journalist and politician, took the same stance, but related the issue to class struggles (fig. 1). In Why We Should Favor the Chicago Platform, Taylor stated “that the laboring classes enjoy some of the society of silver money, is a truth, and that the gold barons have cunningly garnered away the gold in such a manner as to actually hold the government upon her knees.” While asking rhetorical questions, Taylor used many words that his target audience could relate to. He asks, “Can you, my fellow Negro, reason out any objections that you should make to the remonetization, or the liberation of silver? Can you answer to your own satisfaction, ‘Why should gold be king and silver slave?’ Are you afraid that silver will drive from your pocket book the gold that you now possess?”[4] By using such words as “liberation” and “slave,” Taylor relates the struggle of silver to that of African-American identity. In 1904, Taylor became the first African-American to official run for President of the United States, under the National Negro Liberty Party.

This shift of support from Republican issues to those of the Democratic Party may not have roused the entire African-American community, but it was also not isolated to these two men. Several African-American organizations were created to attract others to this cause. On October 6, 1896, The Morning Times from Washington, D.C. stated that “a number of colored free silver Democrats met at the Interstate Democratic headquarters last evening. An organization was effected to be known as the Negro Free Silver League.” Not surprisingly, the elected vice chairman of the organization was none other than John Duker.[5] In addition to national Free Silver organizations for African-Americans, there were also more localized efforts. For instance, by late August of 1896, Topeka, Kansas had three distinct organizations for the cause. J. R. Lyttle, organizer of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka, noted that “this fight is not so much a party fight, as it is one for Americanism.” The first meeting, held at 615 North Kansas Avenue, comprised of only eighteen members, who elected Alfred Kuykendall as President, B. Elder as Vice President, and P. Gibson as Secretary (fig. 2).[6]

Figure 2. Alfred Kuykendall was elected President of the Free Silver Negro League of Topeka in 1896—one of many local organizations that championed the cause.

Amongst white Americans, there was some pushback in the political shift by African-Americans. For instance, the Staunton Spectator reported that “Gold bug Democrats have found a new excuse for quitting the party. The last one is because the negroes are going for free silver.”[7] Other accounts focused on racist stereotypes of African-Americans to demean their political actions and ideologies. The Evening Times of Washington, D.C., for example, reported that when M. Hoke Smith—at the time, the United States Secretary of the Interior—was in Georgia, he asked an African-American voter whether or not he was for Free Silver, the man “scratched his woolly head and said: ‘Wal, Mars’ Smif, I did favor free silber, suah’s you’s b’n, leetle while ago. But since you’s been in de State, Mars’ Smif, de ‘taters am a-growin’ and de ‘possum getting’ plenty. An’ I tell you what ‘tis, Mars’ Smif, gib dis here niggah plenty ‘possum and ‘taters, and’ yum, yum! Get up, chile an’ sing halluyah! I doan’ want no free silber. ‘Possum an’ ‘taters an’ free gol am good nuff fer me.’”[8]

The Free Silver campaign resulted in hundreds of different of types of tokens and medals struck for the cause—many others against. Several of these were highlighted in Kagan’s ANS Magazine article. Perhaps one of the most glaring difference between Free Silver organizations led by white Americans and those founded by African-American is the lack of numismatic material. Despite the hundreds of tokens and medals, none were issued by any of the latter groups. The Free Silver campaign ended up failing. Although Bryan lost the election, it laid the groundwork for future shifts in the US political system. At the time, the issue aroused enough people to actually initiate a shift in African-American support towards the Democratic Party—something that was unheard of before the New Deal of the 1930s.

[1] Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, KY), May 14, 1895: 2.

[2] Duker, 11.

[3] Duker, 11.

[4] Taylor, 7–8.

[5] The Morning Times, October 6, 1896.

[6] “Another Free Silver Club: J. R. Lyttle Organizes a Third Colored Club of 18 Members,” The Topeka State Journal, August 26, 1896: 1.

[7] Staunton Spectator (Staunton, VA), July 15, 1896: 2.

[8] “Sent from Washington,” The Evening Times (Washington, D.C.), August 16, 1895: 4.

Death of a Counterfeiter: A Reminder That All Aspects of Numismatics Are Subject to Fraud

Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.
Figure 1. Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio.

Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio passed away in early July at the age of 78 (fig. 1). With a nickname like “The Coin,” one would think that most numismatists would have heard of him, though that’s likely not the case. As it turns out, Colavecchio might be considered one of the worst nightmares for a numismatist. He was a counterfeiter, and a good one too—the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest counterfeiter.” He had been released from Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina just weeks before he passed away in hospice care, suffering from a variety of medical conditions including dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension. Though sentenced to 15 months in prison for producing counterfeit $100 bills in August 2019, he had only served eight of those months. United States District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. agreed to free him on the time he had served in May, as a last gesture of compassion before his impending death.

This time, he was easy to prosecute. He had been bragging to an informant that he could effortlessly counterfeit $100 bills and was capable of besting even the latest security features. In December 2018, the Secret Service raided his home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and found presses able to produce counterfeit bills that accurately simulated the real deal (including their distinct reaction to ultraviolet light), as well as 2,400 counterfeit $100 bills. Having the damning conversations on recording, he had no choice but to plead guilty. But, this wasn’t the first time he was ever caught.

He earned the nickname “The Coin” from his ability to counterfeit nearly perfect slot-machine tokens for almost every casino in the country. Laboratories couldn’t even find any differences. His most notable arrest came in 1996 when he and his girlfriend were caught in Caesars Atlantic City with 800 pounds of fake tokens (fig. 2.).

Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.
Figure 2. Colavecchio and a set of counterfeit dies that he produced for $100 tokens for the Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, NJ.

It was the largest counterfeiting operation that had ever targeted an Atlantic City casino. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, he acted as a consultant for the federal government, having received $18,000 for explaining why his dies long outlasted those manufactured by the United States Mint. He was eventually banned from every casino in the country, but continued to gamble by wearing wigs and dressing as a woman. Authorities considered him an “old-time mobster.” Most of his exploits can be found in his 2015 autobiography, You Thought It Was More: Adventures of the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.

Figure 3. Note the different sized dots that surround the inscription “FOR USE BY PLAYER ONLY” on this genuine $1 gaming token from the Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.11.

While most numismatists identify counterfeiting with coins or paper currency, tokens and anything that had exchange value ran the risk of fraud. Unlike coins, casino tokens contain several types of anti-counterfeiting measures. These include dots that are of different sizes to separate words (fig. 3), a combination of dots and squares (fig. 4), letters that are intentionally filled in (fig. 5), or a set of tied reedings on the edges of tokens (fig. 6).

Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.
Figure 4. Note the large round dot and smaller square that surround the inscription “NOT LEGAL TENDER” on the reverse of this genuine $1 gaming token from Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. American Numismatic Society, 1988.44.10.

Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy
Figure 5. Note the filled in “O” in the inscription “TEN CENT GAMING TOKEN” on this genuine ten-cent gaming token from Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City. Courtesy

Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.
Figure 6. Note the set of reeding tied together to form one large reeding from the edge of this genuine $1 gaming token from The Claridge Hotel and Casino. Author’s collection.

These would be known to casino employees, but not necessarily publicized in order to thwart counterfeiters. Today, the casinos no longer use metallic tokens, and most slot machines have replaced the use of tokens with printed vouchers that record the winnings which the player can redeem at the pay-out window.

As for Colavecchio, while those he cheated may not mourn his death, those who knew him are full of captivating stories—such as Andy Thibault, who befriended Colavecchio while working with him on his book and said, “I got to appreciate the good points. He was a lot of fun to be with.” A disarming, charming individual—and self-proclaimed “ladies’ man”—Rhode Island State Police Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell has said that “if he used the amount of ingenuity and knowledge he had for good, he could have been a millionaire and changed people’s lives.”

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

Today marks the 155th anniversary in the United States since the slaves of the South were officially emancipated. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War had ended and read the following statement:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Even before this historic moment, the notion of breaking the chains of bondage had already graced itself on numismatic objects. In 1834, for example, engraver J. Davis of England created a silver medal that portrayed both a man while enslaved on the obverse with the famous inscription “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” This medal came nearly thirty years after the British had ended the slave trade, and nearly thirty years before the United States did the same. The abolitionist movement was still strong in England and this medal helped spread the message. As such, the exergue states “A VOICE FROM GREAT BRITAIN TO AMERICA” with the date of 1834. The reverse of the medal depicts a formerly-enslaved man as he broke free from bondage with the words “THIS IS THE LORDS DOING; IT IS MARVELLOUS IN OUR EYES,” a reference from the book of Psalm (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Silver, 44mm, 24.79 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1987.122.24.

This same motif was used in the United States to help garner support for its own abolitionist movement. By 1837 and 1838, tokens that portrayed both enslaved men and women attempted to open the eyes of those were supportive or indifferent about the plights of slavery. These tokens are a part of a larger compendium of tokens from this period now known as Hard Times Tokens, most of which had nothing to do with slavery but with the economic plights caused by the Panic of 1837. Nonetheless, abolitionist causes were heard here as well, with one token portraying an enslaved woman and the inscription “AM I NOT A WOMAN & A SISTER?” (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Bronze, 28 mm, 10.44 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.39313.

In the South, however, where this insidious institution continued to thrive and led to the American Civil War, slaves were portrayed differently. Few tokens portrayed slaves here, but they were featured on several types of paper currencies. More often than not, slaves on paper currency were not represented in chains and, most of the time, look happy. This was a deliberate attempt to placate anyone who contended with narrative that slaves were unhappy or treated poorly. On this 1861 one-dollar note from Georgia, for instance, enslaved individuals are seen picking and packing cotton with a smile on the face of one individual (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Paper, dated July 20, 1861. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.13514.

Even long after emancipation, slavery has been depicted both negatively and, for lack of a better word, passively. On this medal in the Brookgreen Gardens series issued by the Medallic Art Company, for instance, slaves are seen passively, yet diligently, working in what the artist chose to depict as mere “Plantation Life” (fig. 4). By depicting only women and children in front of individual dwellings with lush trees and animals grazing, the perils that too many people faced under slavery is diminished to “life,” a state that many would have objected to.

Figure 4: Bronze, 75 mm, 183.28 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 2001.15.1.

On a different note, a commemorative medallion issued by the National Commemorative Society and struck by the Franklin Mint in 1969 honored John B. Russwurm, who founded Freedom’s Journal in 1827 (fig. 5). Published in New York City, this was the first newspaper in the United States that was owned and operated by an African-American. The reverse of this piece depicts a former slave who recently broke free from his shackles reading the newspaper, along with the phrase “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.”

Figure 5: Silver, 38 mm, 26.26 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1970.39.1.

While righteousness may have exalteth the United States on this day 155 years ago, the nation still has a long way to reconcile its slaveholding past. These numismatic tokens and medal serve as reminders to this, especially the fact that certain pieces issued more than a century after the end of slavery continued to present slaves as passive beings willing and content in their economic roles that they were forced to take. As is known, slaves aren’t slaves willingly, and this holiday signifies the emancipation of an entire group of people from their enforced bondage. On this Juneteenth, perhaps more than ever, the American Numismatic Society celebrates the end of the horrid institution of slavery in the United States.

Ground Control to . . . Abe Lincoln?!

Figure 1. The Curiosity rover with a magnified inset of the calibration panel with the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 1. The Curiosity rover with a magnified inset of the calibration panel with the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

In the most recent issue of the ANS Magazine, I wrote an article on the existence of bacterial life on the surface of coins and paper currency. The discovery of these microbial lifeforms in the second half of the nineteenth century truly helped to advance the understanding of Germ Theory. This was especially true amongst the masses, many of whom may not have otherwise had access to the experiments performed at the time if it weren’t reported in newspapers. They began to fear their money due to its circulatory nature and potential to get them sick.

On Mars, however, humans hope to find microbial lifeforms. Formed in 1993, the Mars Exploration Program is NASA’s attempt to find it. This long-term initiative has sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to the planet, with four different missions still in operation: 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory, and MAVEN (as well as four completed missions, two failed missions, and one mission planned for the future). The principal component of the Mars Science Laboratory is the Curiosity rover—a car-sized, 1-ton vehicle used to explore the climate, geology, and possibilities of life in the Gale crater of Mars, whether now or in the past. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26, 2011, it took 254 days to reach the Red Planet’s surface.

Just like with the advancement of Germ Theory in the nineteenth century, there is a coin helping to lead the way towards finding life on Mars. The primary method of analysis for Curiosity is through cameras, of which there are six different types for a total of 17. One of the 17 cameras is the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which is located on the robotic arm of Curiosity. This camera, while it has long-distance focusing capabilities, is primarily used to take microscopic images of rock and soil with the hopes to find microbial evidence. It can produce images in true-color at a resolution of 1600 × 1200 pixels (now considered quite low) with the ability to focus to 14.5 micrometers per pixel.

Figure 2. The Martian 1909 VDB cent in action, as included by NASA in this photo released to the public. Without that coin in the image, most individuals would have no frame of reference as to the size of what was shown. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 2. The Martian 1909 VDB cent in action, as included by NASA in this photo released to the public. Without that coin in the image, most individuals would have no frame of reference as to the size of what was shown. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

On MAHLI, a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent is a part of its spatial calibration—a process necessary for both long-distance and up-close images (fig. 1). This provides a photographer, or MAHLI in this case, with a frame of reference to an object of known size. The Lincoln cent on board MAHLI is not essential to its calibration, which uses a more-precise ruler for the actual measurement through a series of black-and-white lines known as a scale bar. The 1909 VDB cent serves two key purposes, however. First, according to Ken Edgett (MAHLI Principal Investigator), it is a nod towards less-precise and “on the go” methods of spatial calibration used by early geologists on Earth, who often placed random coins into close-up photographs. Second, it serves as a calibration tool for the general public (fig. 2). While the scale bar gives scientists more-precise calibration details, this tool is still quite foreign to most people. The Lincoln cent, however, is one of the most ubiquitous objects on Earth. With hundreds of billions of these pennies having been produced, most individuals can instantly recognize them, know their general size, and can quickly grasp the size of another object placed next to one.

But, why a 1909 VDB cent? These coins are not necessarily rare, but there are many Lincoln cents from other dates that could have been easily acquired. According to Edgett, who considers himself an “amateur” collector, this coin was intended to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, as Curiosity was originally slated to launch in 2009. This, however, was delayed, and since the window to launch to Mars comes roughly once every 23 months, the mission had to wait until 2011. “When the launch was delayed,” Edgett said, I made a decision to stick with the historic 1909 cent rather than try to find a 1911 cent. Honestly, I think 1911 would have been more difficult to explain.” I concur. While I was initially unaware exactly why Edgett opted for the 1909 VDB cent, that date just made sense, whereas a 1911-dated cent would have required some investigation to correlate it with the date of the launch. Furthermore, a 2009- or 2011-dated coin could not have worked because of the zinc inner core that became standard for Lincoln cents midway through 1982. Zinc is known to sublimate in a vacuum environment (especially at higher temperatures) and cause short circuits. Regardless of the date chosen, and knowing that money from Earth is covered in bacteria, NASA made sure to sterilize this specimen before takeoff to ensure not to introduce Earthly microorganisms to Mars.




Figure 3. The one-cent piece before it left Earth (top), coated in a thin layer of dust after 14 months on Mars (middle), and with a thick layer of dust after six years. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)
Figure 3. The one-cent piece before it left Earth (top), coated in a thin layer of dust after 14 months on Mars (middle), and with a thick layer of dust after six years. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems)

The specimen that is currently (and probably forever will be) on the surface of Mars was one of four that Edgett purchased specifically for NASA. Two other 1909 VDB cents were used in testing the calibration panels at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and the fourth was kept for possible use in future missions. Initially intended to be a two-year mission, the Mars Science Laboratory has been extended indefinitely, and Curiosity has been roaming Mars for eight-and-a-half years with the coin bearing the likeness of Abraham Lincoln keeping its images sharp (fig. 3).


Judging the Gloucester 400 Medallion Competition

Figure 1. The winning design for the Gloucester 400 medal design competition: "Out at Sea" by Beth Swan. This will be struck in bronze and become the official Gloucester 400 medal.
Figure 1. The winning design for the Gloucester 400 medal design competition: “Out at Sea” by Beth Swan. This will be struck in bronze and become the official Gloucester 400 medal.

On Wednesday, February 12, 2020, I ventured to Gloucester, Massachusetts to participate as a judge in the Gloucester 400 project—a year-long celebration of city-wide event and festivities commemorating Gloucester’s founding in 1623. As a part of the celebrations, the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation held a two-phase competition to design a commemorative medal. Phase I of the competition allowed anyone over the age of 18 to submit an original sketch of the design that met multiple guidelines, including the inscription “Gloucester” and “400,” the dates “1623–2023,” and design elements appropriate for high-relief striking. Initial entries were due by August 31, 2019, from which three semi-finalists were picked on October 1. Semi-finalists included Alexis Chipperini, Beth Swan, and Shannon Wilkins, each of whom won a $3,000 prize.

Phase II had the three semi-finalists submit a plaster model of their design by December 1, 2019. To complete the process, medals-expert, Alexander Krapf, and I met at Cape Ann Savings Bank to judge the final phase of the competition (Fig. 2). After about 30 minutes of deliberation, Krapf and I decided on a winner: Beth Swan, a graphic/web media artist from Gloucester. Both of us decided that her design, entitled “Out at Sea,” best encapsulated the different aspects of Gloucester, met all of the guidelines outlined by the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation, and formed a completed and well-rounded design (Fig. 1). The obverse depicts the Gloucester skyline as seen from the harbor, a stylized codfish in the exergue below, and the inscriptions GLOUCESTER 400 and 1623–2023 above. The reverse shows the iconic Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, known as the “Man at the Wheel,” against a rising sun and three stylized ships.

Figure 2. Alexander Krapf and Jesse Kraft just after picking the winner for the Gloucester 400 medal design contest.
Figure 2. Alexander Krapf and Jesse Kraft just after picking the winner for the Gloucester 400 medal design contest.

At a Gloucester City Council meeting on February 25, the Gloucester Celebrations Corporation announced Swan as the winner, for which she won a $10,000 prize. Robert Gillis and Bruce Tobey gave background information about the competition before Ruth Pino had the honor to open the sealed envelope, which both Krapf and I signed the seal flap to ensure nobody opened it before the official unveiling. At this time, it was further announced that all three of the semi-finalist designs would be cast into the medallic form. The other two designs included “Call of the Storm,” by Alexis Chipperini, and “Gloucester: America’s Oldest Seaport,” by Shannon Wilkins (Fig. 3).


Figure 3. The two semi-finalists from the Gloucester 400 design contest. Top: "Call of the Storm" by Alexis Chipperini. Bottom: "Gloucester: America's Oldest Seaport" by Shannon Wilkins. These will also be struck into medallic form.
Figure 3. The two semi-finalists from the Gloucester 400 design contest. Top: “Call of the Storm” by Alexis Chipperini. Bottom: “Gloucester: America’s Oldest Seaport” by Shannon Wilkins. These will also be struck into medallic form.

After the judging, I was given the opportunity to spend the evening at the Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS), known as Starfield, the former home and studio of sculptor Paul Manship, as well as artists John and Margaret Manship—located in Cape Ann just a few miles from where the judging took place (Fig. 4). This site once served as an important art colony for some of the greatest mid-century sculptors. This turned into a surreal experience for me. After a short tour of the residence, I was (quite literally) left alone in the house and was simply told to lock the door on the way out. Unfortunately, after a day of travelling and judging, there was only about an hour to explore the house before falling asleep to travel back to New York City early the next morning. I, however, look forward to when he can travel back to Gloucester and Cape Ann to better see the city and have a longer stay at MARS and highly recommends both to whomever has the opportunity to make the journey.

Figure 4. Aerial view of Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS).
Figure 4. Aerial view of Manship Artists Residency + Studios (MARS).

I would like to thank Robert Gillis and Ruth Pino for organizing the night of judging and Gloucester 400, as well as for hosting both Krapf and me; Bruce Tobey for further organization of the Gloucester 400 celebrations; Rebecca Reynolds, President of MARS, for graciously offering the Manship residence as accommodations after the event; and Alexander Krapf for also participating in judging the design competition.