Take no offense at the title. The term ‘Hobo Nickel’ is one of endearment, and it refers to a rich artistic and cultural phenomenon popularized in the US. The art form hit a peak during the Great Depression, though the practice gained traction with the introduction of the Transcontinental Railroad, and can be traced back to the 1700’s. These creative sculptures use a couple coin denominations primarily, but the buffalo nickel minted in 1913 provided a favored surface for these carvings. Hobo nickels use a sculptural technique known as bas relief, wherein an image is carved out of, and projects from a shallow surface. Hobo coin sculptors utilize minted coins as their canvas; further carving, chiseling, or punching into the surface to create a unique image.
The heyday of the practice began in 1913 and lasted through the Great Depression. The
country’s economy had tanked and Americans were brought to their knees. Many citizens found themselves homeless and desperate for work. These ‘hobos’ would take to the trains, crossing the country to and fro seeking gainful employment. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much in the way of travel entertainment, and so these unknown artisans would chisel their way across the country in hopes of trading their coins for sustenance and shelter. These unique coins, as history would have it, actually carved their way into the valued collections of numismatists everywhere. Though the US treasury no longer recognizes hobo nickels as legal tender, their uniqueness and historical contexts actually make them more valuable than their cousins in circulation.
While many artists are still unknown, several artists gained widespread notoriety for their distinctive designs. Bertram “Bert” Wiegand and his hobo-protege, George “Bo” Washington Hughes, are perhaps the most famous of the bunch originating from the Great Depression. Many carvers are simply known by their nickname. One such artist goes by “Big Nose.” Big Nose created coins in his own image, featuring men with, you guessed it, a sizable schnoz. His coins are unique and are visually referred to by more modern day coin artists like Gary Jacobs. Jacobs is best known for his Big Nose-inspired coin tribute to a Wild West era bandit bearing the same nickname, “Big Nose” George Parrot. Many hobo coins display portraits of hobos, fictional characters, and well known individuals. Of all the subjects found on these coins, Big Nose George is perhaps the most interesting.
Many tall tales surround the life of Big Nose George. Rumors about his involvement with Jesse James can ultimately be traced back to the Nose himself. Still other stories like the one that claims he ran with Butch Cassidy’s gang, the Wild Bunch, are improbable given time constraints. Big Nose was nonetheless an outlaw, murderer, horse and cattle thief. He engaged in failed train heists, profitable cattle raids, and ambushes; and the latter eventually led to his twice attempted and once successful lynching by a mob of Wyoming townspeople.
George’s life of crime fascinated Dr. John Eugene Osborne and Dr. Thomas Maghee, who took possession of Big Nose’s lifeless body to study the brain behind the lawlessness. George’s skull cap was removed and given to a then teenage Lilian Heath, who worked as Dr. Osborne’s assistant, and later became the first female physician west of the Mississippi. She reportedly used the skull cap as a favorite ash tray and occasionally, a door stop.
Although the doctors never discovered any superficial or internal irregularities that
could explain the criminality of Big Nose George, Dr. Osborne decided to make the fruitless effort worth his while by turning George into several trophies. These trophies were a pair of laced dress shoes, a death mask, and one medical bag. Yes, you read that correctly. The rest of the remains were piled into an old whiskey barrel and buried behind the doctor’s clinic. Dr. Osborne saw it fit to not only display the man’s death mask, but strap him to his feet, and stuff him with medical tools for the rest of his own career. He even donned the shoes to his inaugural ball after being elected as the first Democratic Governor of Wyoming. To this day, the public can view the shoes, death mask, and skull cap on display at the Union Pacific Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
George Parrot may be an odd character to commemorate forever on a coin, but many of the faces found on hobo coins are, indeed, of criminals. Most of the known hobo coin creators were themselves in and out of the penitentiary. They lived on the fringe and so did their carved subjects. Hobo coins are a unique niche within numismatics that ultimately elevate the low, and memorialize the forgotten.
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