Tatum, a deaf mute, who reputedly gold-plated thousands of the first Liberty Head nickels and passed them as gold $5s, probably didn’t exist. But Variety 1 1883 Liberty Head nickels were definitely plated by shysters and tendered as gold $5s. There are numerous contemporary newspaper reports of attempts to pass the coins as gold $5s. Today collectors call these coins Racketeer nickels.
A quick search of the New York Times archives turned up an 1883 story datelined from Baltimore of a jeweler who had a tray of gold-plated Liberty Head five-cent pieces in his store window that he was selling at 35 cents each. The jeweler claimed the coins were being sold as charms to wear on watch chains.
What made the plating of the coins attractive to fast-buck artists was that the first 1883 pieces carried only a Roman numeral “V” for the denomination. Once it became evident that this was leading to the plating and passing of the coins at 100 times their real face value, the Mint redesigned the coin by placing the word “CENTS” below the Roman numeral for five. These Variety 2 1883 coins actually bring stronger prices than the Variety 1 1883 coins.
My piece on Tatum, part of a segment called “Collecting Type and Beyond,” can be listened to at www.coinchatradio.com. The show will air beginning at 11 a.m. Central on Thursday, May 15th. It repeats on the main player at the top of each hour.
That show and previous installments of Coin Chat Radio’s weekly “Collecting Money” show can also be accessed under the Archives tab at the site to play at your convenience or to download.