The 1909 Pennsylvania Train Robbery

It’s 1909 and the Philadelphia mint just produced a fresh batch of coins. East of Lewistown, PA on Route 322 there is an area called the “narrows”, a five to six mile stretch where the mountain sides on both sides of the Juniata river are extremely steep. The highway is on the northern side of the river, and the railroad tracks are on the southern side.

The Lewistown “Narrows”

A train traveling from the Philadelphia mint to Pittsburgh was in the middle of the “narrows” the train was said to be stopped by a single man who had dynamite on the tracks. The train was carrying three large safes containing an undisclosed amount of currency and five bags holding about $6,000 in gold and silver bars, and money was stacked in a corner.

The engine had passed over three sticks of dynamite, which blew off the cowcatcher and headlight. The man then, robbed the train of several sacks of coins and disappeared up the mountainside.The robber threatened the crew and fired several shots at the conductor, Isaac Poffenberger, wounding his hand. The robber then ordered the crew to carry several large bags of coins into the woods, had them re-board the train and fired several shots as the train pulled away.

Example of a VDB

When investigators arrived at the scene, they found the bags still in the woods. The robber had passed up the gold and silver bars and snatched bags containing newly minted pennies. After an inventory was taken, it was realized that the only thing that was missing were several sacks of one cent coins! This man was rumored to be ”Pennsylvania’s Jesse James”, Jesse james would never be reported found.

A week after the search for Jesse James was officially called off, another robbery took place in the area, but it got little notice in the papers. On the 29th of October, a 38-year old man in Philadelphia walked into a police station and confessed to being the robber, but his story was soon found to be false. As time passed, the robbery became famous both for its daring style and for the fact that the bandit got away with so little. Many people came to visit the site of the robbery. One of the most notable visitors was Theodore Roosevelt. While on his whistle-stop campaign tour in 1912, he had his special train stop at the scene for him to inspect it personally.

It was discovered in 1954 that apparently the investigators overlooked some bags that were left in the nearby forest. In 1954, a couple of men were hunting on the mountain, and the one guy stepped, slipped and fell on pennies and they recovered over 3,500 1909 cents that had been laying there in the dirt for 45 years. They were all badly corroded, but were sold by local dealers as the find from the infamous railroad heist.

It has never officially been concluded that all the coins were found. Do you think it’s possible that some of these treasures could still lie in the Lewistown forest?

Sources: [X] [X] [X]

The V.D.B Controversy

On August 2, 1909 people began lining up to get their hands on the freshly minted Lincoln Cent that was to replace the Indian Head Cent.  There was such demand for this coin because it was the first American coin to feature a real historical person on its obverse, and Abraham Lincoln at that (see our previous blog “The Lincoln Wheat Cent”).  Three days after the coin’s release, it was pulled back off the presses amid controversy about the size of the artist’s initials on the reverse. Although no one really knows for sure what happened, there has been much speculation about this event.

From the day Victor David Brenner was tasked by President Roosevelt to redesign the penny, Chief Engraver Charles Barber had an issue.  Barber did not like the idea of working with an outsider who had nothing more than sculpting experience. Some say Barber was jealous because Brenner’s design was selected over his own.

In June of 1909, the final design was approved by both Barber and Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, including approval of the initials V.D.B along the bottom of the reverse.  In fact, Barber encouraged Brenner to include his initials and refused to let him use a more discrete “B” placed somewhere else.

51103-02

The day of the coin’s release, rumors started circulating about the placement of the initials.  Some believe a jealous Barber went behind Brenner’s back and began accusing him of being too vain.  Because Brenner was paid for his work, he should not have felt the need to put his initials in such a prominent place on the coin, if at all.  Others have said it was the public that raised a fuss because the initials were simply too big.  Another group of people felt the whole discussion was ridiculous. Adding the artists initials to a coin was a long standing tradition, dating back to ancient Greece.  In fact, the latest gold piece designed by Augustus St. Gaudens and released in 1907 had his initials in the field, on the reverse.

Regardless of the facts, the coin was pulled off the presses on August 5th until a compromise could be struck. Either the initials could be removed all together, the V and D could be removed, simply leaving the B, or the V.D.B could be moved to a more discreet location.  Despite objection from Brenner, the first option was selected as Barber argued any of the other options would take much too long.

During the halt in production, rumor spread that the government was going to recall all the pennies with the V.D.B initials. This caused a bit of a craze as people began hoarding the already in demand coin.

On August 12, 1909 the Lincoln Cent hit the presses once again, this time with no initials, and by the end of the year, supply had finally caught up with demand.

53332-02

Barber passed away in 1917 and the issue of the initials was revisited shortly there after.  In 1918, the initials V.D.B were restored to the coin, this time on the obverse, at the bottom of the Lincoln bust, near the rim of the coin.  They remain there to this day.

53130-01

Not only did this controversy affect the general public, but the coin collecting community as well.  While there were 28 million 1909 V.D.B cents minted at the Philadelphia mint, there were only 484.000 minted in San Francisco.  These 1909 S V.D.B cents became very popular and still are, selling for several thousand dollars a piece in mint condition.

Image courtesy of CCF Numismatics [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of CCF Numismatics [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Check out all the Lincoln Wheat cents we have available on Ebay and our website and see if you can spot the 4 different varieties:

1909 V.D.B with no mint mark (minted in Philadelphia)

1909 S V.D.B (minted in San Fransisco-highly collectible)

1909-1917 with no initials

1918-1958 discrete V.D.B on the bottom of Lincoln’s bust