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.

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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?

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The 1943 Steel Cent

On December 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was launched into WWII.  As the war intensified, more resources were required to keep our military going.  One of those resources was copper.  The increased need of copper for military use, meant less of it for use in other areas of manufacturing, including coins.  The result: The Steel Lincoln Wheat Cent.

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In 1942, after several attempts at getting the public to turn in all their pennies, public law 77-815 was passed which allowed the use of metal substitutes for both the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel.  The Lincoln cent, at the time, was made of a bronze alloy which consisted primarily of copper, around 12% tin and trace amounts of other metals.  These substitutions were to last no longer than December 31st, 1946.

The first order of business was to halt the production of the Lincoln cent until a different metal could be found that would suffice.  The winner: low-carbon steel coated with zinc. The zinc plating was added to prevent any rust.

Although now silver in color, the images and diameter of the coin remained the same.  The only other difference was the weight.  Because steel weighs less than copper, the coin went from the standard weight of just over 3 grams, to closer to 2.75 grams.

The Philadelphia mint was the first to produce the new steel cent on February 23, 1943, with Denver and San Francisco following the next month.

It didn’t take long for the public to start complaining.  “They look like dimes!”, they said.  Complaints poured into the treasury from all sides.  Vending machine companies were upset because their machines mistook the new coins for slugs (counterfeits) because they were magnetic and underweight.

The Treasury Department definitely heard the complaints and by fall of 1943, they were back to the drawing board.  This time they decided to use an alloy similar to the pre 1943 coins, minus the tin.  In fact, most of the metal used came from the spent brass shell casings coming back from overseas.  The public called these cents “shell-case cents” and they were better received than their counterparts. They were minted until 1946.

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After the war, the Treasury recalled all the “steelies” in circulation and by the 1960’s, it was much harder to find them in circulation.  A total of 1,093,838,670 steel cents were produced in 1943.  After the recall, it is estimated that 930 million remained in circulation.  It is not completely uncommon to find steel cents to this day.

From a collecting stand point, two interesting and highly valuable varieties were created during this time, both by accident.  In 1943, when they started making steel cents, a few copper planchets were left in the presses, resulting in a copper/steel mix.  These coins are darker in color because of the copper.  Only 40 are thought to exist, with only 12 being known to the public.  One sold in 2004, for $200,000.

1943 Copper Cent

1943 Copper Cent

A similar error occurred when the switch from steel alloy was made to the brass alloy.  These 1944 Steel Cents are more silver in color and are also magnetic because of the steel.  It is not known exactly how many were minted, but it is estimated to be fewer than the 1943 Copper cent error.  One sold in 2008 for $373,350.

1944 Steel Cent

1944 Steel Cent

Although we do not have any of the error cents, we do have a lot of steel  cents available on both our website and Ebay. While they are not the most beautiful or most practical coin, they represent a vital piece of American history.  Consider adding some to your collection today!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

The Lincoln Wheat Cent

In 1787, the penny was created in response to the need for coinage that was uniquely American (see our previous blog).  Americans wanted to stray from the use of European coinage with its different appearance, weights and value.  Flash forward to the early 1900’s and we find ourselves in competition with European coinage once again.  The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, felt all US coins were lacking in their artistic qualities.  An avid art connoisseur, Roosevelt wanted US coins to more closely match the artistic flair of their European counterparts.

A recent law requiring all coin designs be in circulation for at least 25 years was in effect.  This meant the only coins up for redesign were the 4 gold pieces in use at the time and the penny.  Roosevelt hired his friend, Augustus St. Gaudens for the redesign.  Augustus favored a design with either an eagle in flight or lady liberty, but unfortunately passed away before any of his designs were submitted.  He did successfully redesign the $20 gold piece, called the double eagle (see below).

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After St. Gaudens’ death, Roosevelt turned to Victor David Brenner.  He admired a bronze plaque Brenner had done of Abraham Lincoln and although there had never been a US coin created with a historical figure on it, Roosevelt couldn’t resist capturing his fellow Republican on a coin.  It came as perfect timing, really.  America was about to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and Lincoln memorabilia was in high demand.  In January 1909, Brenner was officially hired for the redesign.

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“Victor David Brenner” by Unknown – Harper’s Weekly, August 21, 1909, p. 24. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victor_David_Brenner.jpg#/media/File:Victor_David_Brenner.jpg

In March 1909, satisfied with his design, Brenner met with mint chief engraver, Charles Barber.  Barber was less than impressed with the initial design.  Although artistic, it still had to be mint-able and that was Barber’s chief concern.  He also didn’t like the idea of outsourcing the job to someone who only had experience as a sculptor. After a lot of back and forth between Brenner, Barber and Mint Director Frank A. Leach, a design was finally agreed upon and the first Lincoln Cent hit the presses.

On August 2 1909, the first Lincoln cents were available to the public.  The coin had a profile view of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse with the words “In God We Trust” filling in the space above his head.  The reverse featured 2 wheat ears framing the words “One Cent” and “United States of America.”  On the very bottom of the reverse, were the initials V.D.B for the man who created the design.

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Because of the built up anticipation of this coin and the fact that it had Lincoln on it, the coin was wildly popular with the public. The day it was released, people stood in long lines at the various treasuries just waiting to get their hands on the freshly minted coins.  There was such demand that they ended up rationing the coins they handed out that day.  People in line at the New York Treasury could get up to 100 coins at a time and people at the Philadelphia Treasury were only allowed 2.  Many people then took these newly minted coins to the secondary market and ended up making a profit, selling them for up to 25 cents per coin in some areas.

The hype was short lived and things returned to normal in a matter of days.  That is until rumors started circulating that Victor David Brenner was trying to make a name for himself by putting his initials V.D.B on the back of the coin, in rather large printing.  The legality of this move was even called into question as some called it advertising, which is not allowed on coins.  All production was halted on August 5 until a new design could be made with out the initials.

Although a compromise was finally struck and minting started back up on  August 18, the controversy remained.  What started out as a simple attempt to make a pretty coin and keep up with the Europeans had turned into a rather ugly battle between artist and engraver.  Stay tuned to find out what the compromise looked like and how it affected the Lincoln cent in the weeks and months to come.

In the  meantime, check out all the wheat cents we have for sale with the controversial V.D.B initials still on them by checking out our Ebay store or website.

The Sense behind the Cent

The American Revolutionary war was officially ended by Congress on April 11, 1783. It is estimated that America had around 3 Million people in it at the time, all from various European countries.  All these people brought with them the culture and tradition from their native lands and the great melting pot was born.  Along with ideas and traditions came various units of trade.  If you could pop back to this time in American history, you would find coins from all over the world being used for trade.  Each coin had its own value, look and weight.  Imagine the confusion this would cause.  It was soon clear that this country needed its own unit of trade, one that was uniform and would be recognized by anyone.  And so the penny was born.

Designed by Benjamin Franklin, the first penny was called the fugio cent.  It was privately minted from 1787 to 1793 and made solely of copper.  The obverse featured the sun shining down on a sundial with the caption “fugio” (I fly or flee) on one side.  The bottom says “Mind your business”.  The reverse shows 13 interlocking rings meant to represent each of the 13 colonies with the words “we are one” in the center.

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From here, a series of what we now call large cents were produced from 1793 to 1856.  Here is a list of the different large cent varieties they made:

Flowing Hair Cent (1793)

Liberty Cap Cent (1793-1797)

Draped Bust Cent (1796-1808)

Classic Head Cent (1808-1814)

Coronet Cent (1816-1857)

Matron Head Cent (1816-1839)

Braided Hair Cent (1839-1857)

No pennies were made in 1815 because of the war of 1812 and the shortage of copper that resulted.

By the mid 1800’s, these large cents were quickly becoming unpopular in commerce and expensive to mint.  These coins were large and became heavy to pack around.  Also, due to inflation, the price of copper started rising so that it was now costing more than 1 cent to make a penny. By 1850, pennies were no longer profitable to mint.

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In 1856, the flying eagle cent came into circulation (pictured above).  This coin was much smaller than its counterpart and was made of only 88% copper.  The other 12% was nickel, which was a much more affordable metal.  To get these new “small cents”, people could exchange their large cents or other worn foreign silver.  So many flying eagle cents were made that they quickly overwhelmed the system.  They were not considered legal tender and therefore banks and other merchants did not have to accept the coins. Flying eagle cents were only minted for three years.  The eagle design did not strike well and it was replaced by the Indian head Cent (pictured below).

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The Indian head cent was minted from 1859-1909. Most of these coins were minted to pay union soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, in 1864, its composition was changed once again to be 95% copper and 5% zinc.  Also in this year the Coinage act of 1864 was passed.  This act made the one cent coin legal tender and now merchants and banks across the country had to accept them.

In 1909, to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday, the design on the penny was changed once again.  Commonly known as the wheat cent (pictured below), this coin featured a profile view of Lincoln on the obverse and a pair of wheat ears circling the words “one cent” on the reverse  Lincoln was the first historical figure to be used on a US coin and his picture remains on the penny to this day.

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Although its design has changed many times, the purpose of the cent remains the same. It was not only our first official coin, but it helped shape our nation.  Check out all the different cents we have for sale on Ebay and our website and stay tuned for more about the infamous wheat cent