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10 Lesser-Known U.S. Coins

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President Obama recently suggested the retirement of the penny as a way of reducing the federal budget, since it costs nearly two and a half times its face value to mint. While that may not happen any time soon, it’s still interesting to look at some other coins in U.S. history that were retired, were exceptionally rare, or never even made it off the drawing board...

1. Bullion coins

While most of America’s coinage is made up of a variety of materials, bullion coins are made up entirely of precious metals. Currently, there are four kinds: Silver Eagles, Gold Eagles, Platinum Eagles, and Gold Buffalos.

Each are legal tender and have their own face value: Silver Eagles are $1, Gold Eagles are $5, $10, $25, or $50 (depending on weight), Platinum Eagles are $100, and Gold Buffalos are $50. However, it would be a really horrible idea to spend them—the coins are intended to be bought and sold at the current market value of the metal from which they were created (which is far, far higher than the face value).

Bullion coins aren’t circulated and can’t be purchased from the U.S. Mint directly. Instead, a network of authorized sellers can hook you up ... to the tune of the market value of the metal, plus a little extra for the convenience of having it in coin form.

2. Unions

After the gold rush of 1849, Californians had a bit of a money problem. Previously, the region had solely used its own specially-minted coins for currency. Once California reached statehood, however, this became troublesome, because the U.S. Mint didn’t issue higher-value coins and paper currency was still very slow to circulate out west.

To combat this, Congress considered creating two new coins: the $100 Union and $50 Half-Union. The proposal failed, however, and neither coin saw circulation.  But in 1910, a private collector came forward with two gold Half-Unions, both marked with an 1877 date (nearly twenty years after they were rejected).

The coins are kind of a mystery. No one knows exactly why they were created (or when, since the 1877 date is possibly incorrect), but several other collectors have since found copper Half-Unions made using the same die. The two original Half-Unions are now in the Smithsonian.

3. Eagle Coins

From 1792 to 1933, America issued gold coins known as eagles (not to be confused with the bullion coins mentioned previously). The longest-lived obsolete coin in U.S. history, eagles were actually a series of related denominations. The eagle itself was worth $10, but the Mint also produced the double-eagle ($20), half-eagle ($5), and quarter-eagle ($2.50).

In 1933, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed that people hoarding gold might prolong the Great Depression, signed Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal for individuals to possess more than $100 worth of gold. Any amounts in excess were turned over to the government for a cash equivalent. This effectively ended production of the eagle coins, as the Mint started melting down its own supplies to assist.

4. Stella

In the 1860s, several European countries banded together to create a universal currency, sort of like an early attempt at the Euro. This group called itself the Latin Monetary Union (or LMU) and created standards for gold and silver coins that could be minted by the individual countries but were also easily exchanged on a one-for-one basis.

The U.S. briefly considered joining the LMU and produced a concept coin called the Stella. Valued at $4 US, the Stella would have been America’s version of the LMU gold coin. However, Congress rejected both the Stella and the LMU (which disbanded after World War I), so the coin went unused.

5. Three-Dollar Piece

From 1854 to 1889, the U.S. Mint produced a gold coin worth $3, which is a bit surprising, since they already had the aforementioned quarter-eagle worth $2.50. Why did they feel the need to create a separate coin for the extra 50 cents? The answer is stamps.

More specifically, for buying a whole lot of stamps. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Postal Service actually lowered the price of stamps from five cents to three. Thus, it was widely assumed (though never directly stated) that, essentially, the sole purpose of $3 coins was for businesses to conveniently buy 100 stamps in a single transaction. Obviously, they weren’t much use for anything else. Since stamps couldn’t stay the same price forever, the coin was retired within a few decades.

(For the record, a three-dollar piece would buy six and a half stamps today.)

6. Twenty-Cent Piece

The shortest-lived circulated coin in U.S. history, the twenty-cent piece only lasted from 1875 to 1878. Once again, this was America attempting to keep parity with Europe—France, in particular. Their twenty-franc piece was approximately the same size and material as the twenty-cent piece, and so the two could, in theory, be exchanged equally.

In reality, this was almost never done. Though francs were a popular reserve currency at the time, the average citizen didn’t have much of a need for a twenty cent coin, especially since quarters were already well-established.

7. Half-Dime

Long before nickels were ever a thing, the U.S. Mint produced an entirely different five cent coin known as the half-dime. They were, in fact, about half the size of a dime as well as being half the value. From 1792 to 1873, silver half-dimes were produced to fill the gap between pennies and dimes, because no one likes a pocket full of pennies.

Trouble for the half-dime started in 1866, though, when nickel lobbyists convinced the government to authorize the creation of new five-cent pieces made out of, of course, nickel alloy. The half-dime lasted less than a decade afterward. The new so-called “nickel” quickly edged it out.

8. Three-Cent Piece

Tying back into the previously-mentioned three-dollar piece and the half-dime, the three-cent piece was a short-lived (but fairly popular) coin that was minted between 1851 and 1889. The original three-cent coin was made of silver and was introduced in response to the cheap stamps that also led to the creation of the three-dollar piece. One coin was equal to one stamp, which was simple and convenient. (You would need sixteen of them to buy a single stamp today.)

But silver hoarding became common during the Civil War, which caused circulation problems. Luckily, the same nickel lobbyists who pressured for the half-dime replacement had also gotten Congress to introduce an alternative: the three-cent nickel. For the first few years of its life, the “nickel” actually came in both three-cent and five-cent varieties.

However, since the three-cent nickel was about the same size as a dime, the two often got confused. In addition, the price of stamps changed once again, leading to the three-cent coin becoming largely unnecessary, and so it was phased out in 1889.

9. Two-Cent Piece

Another experimental coin, the two-cent piece was mostly just a stopgap piece to be used to combat coin shortages until the Civil War ended. When the war did end, the U.S. Mint just decided to keep making them and see if anyone used them. They didn’t, and between the initial 1864 run and the final 1873 series, production dropped from 20 million coins to just 600. As in 600 total.

Ironically, they might have been very popular in 1883, when the Postal Service once again performed a now-unthinkable act and dropped the cost of stamps down to two cents (where they stayed, except for a short time during WWI, until 1932).

10. Half-Cent

 

Although Americans now only see fractions of a cent at gas stations, they used to be much more common. From 1793 to 1857, the U.S. Mint produced a half-cent—the smallest value coin in American history. Fractions of a cent, which are technically called mills, were actually very useful when small denominations of currency actually had some value to them.

In fact, some states even produced one mill tokens, worth 1/10 of a cent, at various points in history. These tokens, which were not official U.S. coinage (hence the word token instead of coin), were most often used for paying sales tax on purchases.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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