An Unusual Tradition Continues at This Grave


John Wilkes Booth is undoubtedly one of the most notorious names in American history. If you visit his grave, you’ll have to find it first. After shooting Lincoln and escaping to Northern Virginia, Booth was shot while trying to escape capture and his body brought back to Washington, DC, for confirmation of his identity. He was originally buried in the Old Penitentiary along with the two men who conspired with him. His body was exhumed in 1867 and re-buried in a Penitentiary warehouse. It was finally released to his family in 1869, who took the body to their own family plot for final burial.



20046526_10209637484474970_6772455346360581552_nHis family plot is easy to locate, but since the family believed a large headstone might be unseemly and attract unwanted attention, no one is quite sure which stone is his. Common tradition points to a small, unmarked stone, and over time, a tradition has developed. Visitors to the grave place a penny on top of the stone; if Lincoln’s portrait is face up, it designates support for Lincoln. A few occasional face-down pennies would indicate support of Booth. Coin collector William Davis recently visited the grave and took pictures of the coins present at the time.



19989648_10209637484434969_3293582512244474740_nIt’s likely that the tradition developed from the military custom of leaving coins on a soldier’s headstone. Different coins indicate different relationships to the soldier buried; some say the tradition goes back to the Vietnam War, but it can only be traced to the  2000s.



19959298_10209637486035009_852017781684380025_nIt’s almost certain that no one was leaving pennies at Booth’s grave before the early 1900’s, as the pennies did not bear Lincoln’s portrait until 1909, when the VDB design was introduced. However, it did arise organically, as folk traditions do, and is an excellent example of folklore and tradition in action in the contemporary world. (For another example of this, see our post about coin trees and the work of folklorist Ceri Houlbrook.)



However the traditions develop, humans have long used coins as offerings, luck charms, and wards against evil; it’s no surprise they would be used to send a message at a grave.



[All photos courtesy of William Davis and used by permission.]

Lincoln’s Cents


One of the best-known stories about America’s most beloved president is actually about coins. The story goes that, upon closing his general store one evening, Abraham Lincoln discovered that he had inadvertently overcharged a customer. Unwilling to let the error stand even overnight, Lincoln walked miles to the customer’s house to return the change (the amount varies, usually said to be just a few pennies.)
American coins changed relatively little over Lincoln’s lifetime (1809-1865), but the coins were very different from what we have today.

The coins he returned to the customer were probably a mix of half-cents and large cents; when the incident with the customer occurred, likely in 1832, the small coins in circulation were the Classic Head half-cent(1809-1836) and Classic Head (1808-1814) and Coronet large cents (1816-57.) (As American coins are always legal tender, it’s possible that earlier Draped Bust coins were mixed in.)




The Braided Hair half-cent entered circulation later, in 1840. The half-cents of the time were almost as large as modern quarters, and minted in pure copper. Inflation eventually lead to the abandonment of this denomination of coin just before the Civil War.



Large cents were also made of copper, and while useful for transactions, proved to be awkward as pocket change; in addition, copper prices began rising in the 19th century. In 1857, the large cent was replaced in circulation with the Flying Eagle small cent; American pennies have been small in size ever since.

NNC-US-1858-1C-Flying_Eagle_Cent.jpgThe small cents were introduced with the Flying Eagle cent, which was patterned in 1856 and introduced into circulation in 1857. It was produced until 1858; the Indian Head cent was went into production in 1859. (This design was used for the next 50 years.) The Flying Eagle was known as the “white cent” because of its lighter color due to the new copper-nickel composition.




The year before Lincoln’s death, the Mint issued the two-cent coin, the country’s first and only two-cent denomination piece. This was also the first time the motto “In God We Trust” was used on a coin.





From 1851-1873, a three-cent silver coin was also in circulation; due to the silver content, it was hoarded when war broke out, causing a coin shortage. At that time, the Mint began striking the three-cent coins in copper-nickel.



NNC-US-1839-O-5C-Seated_Liberty_(no_drapery).jpgThe half-dime was America’s first five-cent coin, far predating the nickel as we know it today. The half-dimes that Lincoln knew would have been the Capped Bust (produced 1829-1837) and the Seated Liberty (1837-1873), though he likely would have seen some of the Draped Bust half-dimes as a child, since they were produced until just a few years before his birth. Interestingly, Lincoln never saw a nickel; the first American nickels were struck in 1866.
NNC-US-1820-10C-Capped_Bust.jpgBoth Capped Bust (1809-1837) and Liberty Seated (1837-1891) dimes were produced during Lincoln’s lifetime; the dime and half-dime had almost identical designs for most of the 19th century. Until 1964, all dimes in circulation were minted in silver (for more on why silver coinage ceased–and how coin collecting almost became illegal–see this post.)
Seated_Liberty_Quarter_with_Arrows_and_Rays.jpgThe quarter, due to its usefulness and size, has always been one of the most popular of all American coins. The Draped Bust design dropped out of production shortly before Lincoln was born, with the Capped Bust design beginning production in 1815. The Seated Liberty quarter followed it, from 1838-1891.
NNC-US-1849-G$1-Liberty_head_(Ty1).jpgHalf dollars were one of the major silver coins in circulation in Lincoln’s day. Again, the Capped Bust (1807-1839) and Seated Liberty (1839-1891) designs would have been familiar to him. Gobrecht dollars (1836-1839), Seated Liberty (1840-1873) and gold Capped Head (1821-1834), Classic Head (1834-1839), and Liberty Head (1849-1854) dollars would also have been in circulation, though not common in daily transactions. A $5 Liberty Head coin was also produced from 1849-1854, but was certainly not used by most citizens at the time.
It’s also likely that some silver pesos were still being used during Lincoln’s childhood and early career. They were accepted as legal tender in America until 1857, and in Canada until 1854.



We cannot know exactly which coins Honest Abe returned to his customer 180 years ago, but we do know the effect Lincoln’s presidency had on our coins. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a new design for the penny for the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. creating the Lincoln cent. It was the first coin to portray a president, and Lincoln’s portrait on the obverse is the longest-running design in US Mint history.

A History of Thanksgiving in 3 Minutes

Do you know the history behind one of the most popular American holidays?

The feast in Plymouth was only the start. Let us take you back in time for the real story behind Thanksgiving…

Thanksgiving is commonly attributed to a dinner in Plymouth, 1621, between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, incorporating a tradition from England called Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving. Governor of Plymouth Plantation William Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving for the harvest they reaped, and invited the local Wampanoag Indians.


Due thanks we give and are thankful / for every heaping plateful!

Turkey is the one food that can be connected from this dinner today, as wild turkeys were a regular part of the diet at Plymouth that fall.

Pumpkin pie started its roots from English colonists. Pumpkin was introduced to Europe in the 1500s, added to the tradition of filling crusts with vegetables, and English cookbooks featured pumpkin pie recipes beginning in the 1600s.

It took a long time for the Plymouth feast to spark a regular tradition. In 1789 George Washington declared the first nationwide thanksgiving in America, “by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God,” but only for that year.

According to one source, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” Sarah Josepha Hale pushed to make Thanksgiving a regular holiday, and perhaps as a result of her encouragement Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a formal holiday in 1863. He asked Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving.” This was during the Civil War, a time when giving thanks was much needed.

Later, Roosevelt and Congress officially set Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to cater to what every American’s mind is really on this time of year: to extend the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday, anyone?Thanksgiving_1900

Today, the President of the United States pardons a turkey every year right before the holiday, and that turkey will be free to roam farmland freely. In fact, the first recorded event of pardoning a turkey was not out of sympathy for the turkey but because of the turkey’s smaller size. President Kennedy sent his gift turkey back from the National Turkey Federation, saying “We’ll just let this one grow.”