Recently I attended a Long Table hosted by ANS curator Jesse Kraft, who showed a fascinating coin he had come across while working with the Mexico trays in the vault. It was a silver eight real dated 1842, but what makes it interesting are the words inscribed on a silver band added along the circumference of the coin, especially those that say, “Taken from Jefferson Davis the time he was taken prisoner of war.”
Jefferson Davis was the president of the Southern States during the Civil War, and this coin caught my attention because we have a letter in the ANS Archives written by Davis on the same theme. In it he talks about having some valuables “stolen” from him after he was captured at the end of the war. The letter was sent to coin dealer John Walter Scott, who had written to Davis to find out more about the Confederate half dollar proof coins, of which there are four, the first of which surfaced in 1879. (That coin is in the ANS collection.) Davis told Scott that at the time of his capture he had “a Confederate coin” that was in his wife’s trunk, which was “rifled by the Federal Officers sent on board the prison ship on which she was detained.” The one said to be Davis’s was the third Confederate half dollar to surface (in 1936).
This Mexican coin was new to me, however, and I wanted to find out more about it. There are other inscriptions on it, and these relate to the early owners of the coin. Along the top of the obverse it reads, “Presented by Mr. Park of Park & Tifford to Geo. Hartley 1864,” and along the bottom it says, “Mrs. Hartley to Daniel F. Myers 1890.” Some light internet searching revealed that Joseph Park (1823-1903) was associated with Park & Tilford, a grocery store founded at 35 Carmine St., Manhattan, in 1840. George Hartley and Daniel Myers proved more elusive. We do know that the coin was given to the ANS by H. C. Hines, but unfortunately, the accession record fails to shed any more light on the donation. A note with the coin says that it was Myers who added the silver band and inscriptions. It also identifies him as a New York jeweler and coin collector.
I did find some great information in the Stack’s auction catalog for part 1 of the John Ford collection (October 14, 2003, p. 239-243), which contains pieces similar to this coin, identifying them as “Davis Flight Medals.” Some background information is included with the lot descriptions. As the South faced its final defeat, Davis fled with family, servants, and a military guard along with as much as $500,000 in British gold coins, U.S. double eagles, and other valuables—including Mexican eight reales. Like the ANS coin, the flight pieces often have inscriptions indicating how they were obtained—either seized or given by Davis as gifts. As the catalog states, “some are fairly crude engravings on Mexican silver coins, while others are skillfully executed.”
I’d say the ANS’s coin falls into the “fairly crude” category, but it’s fascinating nonetheless, and I’m hoping to discover more about it.