In 1984, an archaeological collection at St. Inigoes, a long-standing Jesuit site in Maryland, uncovered an unusual coin: a 1596 Elizabeth I sixpence that had clearly been folded and straightened out again. Since silver coins have often been used in witchcraft and other rituals, the folding of the coin is a good indicator that it had been used as some kind of charm.
The Jesuits of St. Inigoes built their community in Maryland in 1637, taking advantage of a promise that Catholics and Protestants would both be allowed freedom of worship, something not guaranteed in parts of the colonies controlled by Puritans. Although the coin may have been dropped during these early years, it was found at the surface of the dig, and may have been deposited much later.
Researcher Sara Rivers Cofield speculates that the folding of the sixpence may be a holdover from pagan practices: “The fold lines indicate that it was retained while bent for a lengthy period of time. By the time this coin was minted, bent coins had a centuries long history of use in sacred ritual. The bending process is believed to represent the creolization of Christian worship and pagan practices that include the ‘killing’ of an object to be devoted to a deity (McKitrick 2009; Merrifield 1987). As early as 1307, it was considered ‘the English custom’ to bend a coin as part of a vow to a particular saint.” Coins bent to invoke a saint were generally considered as a vow to make pilgrimage to a particular saint’s shrine. Bent coins could also be used in case of stormy weather or other disasters. Silver coins were particularly effective against witches: the tradition of dropping silver coins into cream so witches could not keep it from churning lingered in Scotland into the 1880s. Some lore insisted that a silver sixpence, used as a bullet, was the only effective weapon against witches who took the form of hares.
The use of coins in rituals to saints was dismissed as “popery” after the Reformation, but many such coins saw new purpose as love tokens. Coins and love have long been linked, and many cultures have wedding traditions that use coins. The St. Inigoes coin is unusual in that it was bent in thirds across the center, and apparently kept that way for a substantial amount of time, before being straightened. What is its story?
It’s impossible to say for sure why the St. Inigoes coin was bent, and even less certain why it was straightened again. But educated guesses can be made. Cofield states, “The
English Catholics who settled Maryland clearly chose to defy forced conversion to Anglicanism and they continued to venerate saints, so they are equally likely to have continued other practices that Protestants frowned upon. If the sixpence was used as part of a vow, then it may have been lost before the promised pilgrimage was complete, or St. Inigoes itself, as a center of Jesuit activity, may have represented a sacred site to a Maryland Catholic whose pilgrimage options were limited.” Given that a major part of the site appears to have been used as a dairy, it’s also highly possible the coin was used in a churn spell at some point, especially since silver coins used for that purpose tended to be preserved and handed down for generations. It’s also possible it was unbent by a Protestant trying to undo superstitious traditions.
Ultimately, we’ll never know who bent the St. Inigoes coin, or why it was unbent. What is obvious is that this special coin was valuable to someone, that it represented something important, and that it sits squarely in the old world traditions surrounded silver coins. Even with all its mysteries, it can still tell us so much about the world that produced it.
[Featured image courtesy Naval Air Station Patuxent River’s Webster Field Annex,
Naval District Washington. Photo by Cait Shaffer. Used by fair use.]