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The Great Theft at Carson City

The Carson City Mint, located in Carson City, Nev., near the Comstock Lode, first struck coins in 1870. Its last coinage was in 1893.

The Carson City Mint, located in Carson City, Nev., near the Comstock Lode, first struck coins in 1870. Its last coinage was in 1893.

The famed “CC” mintmark adorned the coins issued by this western mint.

The famed “CC” mintmark adorned the coins issued by this western mint.

By 1895, the storied Carson City Mint, which had by then produced millions of coins bearing its famed “CC” mintmark, was in its death throes – soon to be downgraded to an assay office. Its inglorious end was nudged along by a scandal that would shake public confidence in the silver-rush era mint. It involved an audacious scheme to steal bullion from the mint, the story of which was told in detail in the August 1963 issue of Coins.

“The real saga of the closing years of the Carson City mint is one of the most fantastic stories that ever came out of the West,” wrote Jock Taylor in “The Scandalous Carson Mint.”

From the time of its first coinage, in 1870, the Carson City Mint, Carson City, Nev., saw its production “expand and contract like an accordion.” In 1885 coinage ended, not to resume until 1889, only again to be suspended in 1893.

Taylor wrote that after that, “Nothing much happened until 1895 when Joe Douglas [or Douglass], who did a brokerage and exchange business in Reno, bought two bars of silver bullion that, he soon had a hunch, had somehow found their way out of the Carson mint. He revealed his suspicions, and again inspectors from Washington descended on Carson.”

The March 21, 1895, issue of the San Francisco Call further explained, in a story datelined the day prior to Virginia City, Nev.:

“A clew has been found here which may lead to the solution, possibly, of the disappearance of a large amount of bullion from the Carson Mint, variously estimated at from $56,000 to $80,000.

“A rumor pretty well authenticated was being whispered about to-day to the effect that Joseph Douglass, who is a well-known broker and purchaser of bullion, bought from some person two months ago two bars of refined silver bullion, which he supposed at the time came from the Carson mint ... Others who know something of the case stated that the bars of bullion in question contained no gold, which is the point that aroused suspicion. It is stated that the bullion from the mines hereabouts always contains gold, and that the silver bullion without it, from ordinary sources, is an unheard of thing or very unusual.”

In the same issue, datelined Washington, March 20, it was reported that Mint Director Robert E. Preston “said to-day that early last month he received intimation that there was a shortage in the accounts of the melter and refiner of the Carson mint, and Superintendent [Andrew] Mason of the New York Assayer’s office was immediately detailed to make an investigation.”

Carson City Mint melter and refiner Hirsch Harris, who first noted the discrepancy in a Feb. 15, 1895, letter to Carson City Mint Superintendent Jewitt W. Adams, found that 3,000 ounces of standard gold and 3,000 ounces of standard silver, valued at more than $75,000, were missing, writing, “I can only account for the great shortage of both gold and silver in one of two ways, viz, either through the dishonesty of the employees, or that the bullion received by you in settlement from your predecessor and by you turned over to me, did not contain the alleged assay value.”

Taylor wrote that, on March 28, 1895, U.S. District Attorney Charles Jones, “while refusing to make any definite statement, issued the lugubrious comment that ‘there has been foul work done here. There is no mistake about it.’”

“The next day Mason uncovered the notorious ‘counterfeit melt.’ In that particular melt, it was found, the bulk of the gold that should have been present had been extracted and silver added to restore the melt to its proper weight. Such a performance, Mason declared, would have been impossible without the knowledge and connivance of at least one high official ... Mason started the task of assaying every bar of bullion in the mint and found plenty of evidence of monkey business.”

A Los Angeles Herald article, datelined to Carson, Nev., filled in some of the story in its April 6, 1895, issue: “The town is full of secret service detectives, under control of Agent Grant of Chicago, and they are shadowing officials and learning the history of their extravagant habits. None of those suspected can escape. The greatest steal yet discovered in one melt was unearthed by Superintendent Mason a few days ago. He found that one run of melt which purported to contain 2200 ounces – half gold, half silver – had but forty ounces of gold. The shortage on this fraudulent melt, therefore was about $22,000.

“The principal man under suspicion is Assistant Melter and Refiner John Jones, who has been in office under Hirsch Harris and who came to him as a hold-over from the Harrison administration. The detectives are at work on Jones’ record, and they claim to have discovered that he has been spending $500 to $600 a month on an income of $125. He was first suspected by Hirsch Harris. Harris relied largely on Jones, the practical man in the department, but grew very suspicious when bars that ought to have come out with a large percentage of gold were returned nearly pure silver…. The crimes were committed by the substitution of bars, and it is known that the frauds extend over a period of five or six years.”

James Heney avoided arrest for some time for his theft of bullion from the Carson City Mint. He was convicted after his second trial and sentenced to eight years in prison and fined. The $24,000 he stole is valued in today’s money in excess of $790,000.

James Heney avoided arrest for some time for his theft of bullion from the Carson City Mint. He was convicted after his second trial and sentenced to eight years in prison and fined. The $24,000 he stole is valued in today’s money in excess of $790,000.

Suspects were soon on the run, Taylor wrote. “The San Francisco Examiner … reported that former employees of the Carson mint, who had been making their homes in San Francisco, were packing up hastily and ‘going East.’ Specifically, it mentioned James Heney, who had worked as a silver dissolver in the separating department of the melter and refiner’s office, and for a time was an accomplice of Jones in secreting the bullion from the mint. Heney left the mint in 1891, having worked there for four years, and since “‘invested largely in San Francisco mortgages.’”

Arrests were quickly made, including assistant melter and refiner Jones and Henry Piper, a former laborer in the melting department.

“Heney, however, by that time regarded as a key witness at the very least, was still missing,” Taylor wrote. “A few days later William Pickler, an employee of the mint, was ‘turned in’ by Flo Stewart, the woman with whom he had been living. She told police that Pickler had hidden bullion in his stable. The police arrested Pickler and in his presence searched the stable, where bullion worth $250 was found.”

Pickler never went to trial. He died shortly after his arrest, apparently of heart disease, though Stewart claimed cheap whiskey did him in.

“In the meantime,” Taylor continued, “the missing Heney had turned up and was placed under bond of $25,000, which he claimed he was unable to meet, so was lodged in jail.” He was charged with the theft of $24,000 in bullion.

According to the June 16, 1895, issue of the San Francisco Call, “The principal witness against Heney was H.H. Beck of the Reno Reduction Works, who handled his bullion. Beck testified that Heney brought him gold granulation 990 fine and told him it came from a leased Silver City [Nev.] mine, whose owners did not know how rich it was. [Pearis B.] Ellis, assayer of the mint, testified that the bullion from Silver City ran only 300 to 600 fine.” Beck said Heney regularly brought him bullion, in all totaling $23,000.

During Heney’s trial, “The defense sought to prove the missing gold had been flushed out of the vats during the regular course of operations, and proved that the soil of a potato patch adjoining the mint [sewer] assayed $9 a ton,” Taylor wrote, noting that pro-prosecution “[Sam P.] Davis [editor of the Morning Appeal, Carson City, Nev.] and the San Francisco newspapers hailed the ‘gold plated potatoes’ with delight. The delight increased when the prosecution proved that the gold-bearing soil of the potato patch was decidedly spotty, indicating that somebody had salted the ground too hurriedly to do a good job.”

The Heney trial lasted two weeks. With no agreement among the jurors, after a vote of seven-to-five, the jurors were discharged.

“His second trial opened almost immediately, and by then the prosecution had provided itself with plenty of fireworks,” Taylor wrote. “It proved, among other things, that Heney had carried gold to a Reno reduction plant in sacks resembling those used by the mint.”

For his part, Heney claimed he had obtained the gold from his brother in California.

“The real explosion came with the introduction of Joe Langevain [or Langevin], a witness who had turned up missing when sought for the first trial. Langevain testified that he had been paid by representatives of the defense to go to Canada until the first trial had been concluded. He said he was paid $900 to remain out of the country for a stipulated number of days.” Langevin also implicated night policeman Barney Brule and defense attorney Trenmor Coffin.

Heney was convicted, sentenced to eight years, and fined $5,000. Brule was sentenced to three months and a fine of $250.

In March 1895, the trial of ex-assistant melter and refiner John T. Jones was begun and again the jury split seven-to-five, as in the first Heney trial. “That coincidence was more than the [newspapers] could take, and charges of jury bribing were added to the list that already had been piled up,” Taylor wrote.

In the intervening time between Jones’ second trial, Henry Piper, who had been arrested at about the same time as Jones, was found guilty of stealing $1 in crude amalgam he had taken out of the mint in his lunch pail. He was sentenced to pay a fine of $300 but was spared jail time.

Jones’ second trial, Taylor wrote, opened in late April 1896 and “immediately the acid tanks and the famous potato patch came under heavy fire. Whoever had tried to cover up Jones, it appeared, hadn’t known his business. Experts proved that the excess gold in the tanks had been planted, and that at least $5,000 had been vainly squandered in the effort to account for Jones’ shortage.… Jones was convicted and sentenced to eight years and a fine of $5,000.

“In November [1896] Sam Davis nearly shrieked when the U.S. grand jury met and the [Trenmor] Coffin case was not presented, U.S. District Attorney Jones having been ‘indisposed’ and not present.” Davis believed that Coffin was involved in the bribing of Langevin in the Heney case.

In the Dec. 24, 1895, Appeal, Davis charged: “Coffin was at Langevin’s house at night, paving the way for the subsequent visit of Brule. Coffin was there with a smooth talk and Brule followed with $100. These facts are undisputed.”

When no charges were brought against Coffin, Davis called for Jones’ immediate resignation.

U.S. District Attorney Charles Jones didn’t take kindly to the attack and launched one of his own.

“Four days later [Nov. 18, 1896] while Davis, his arms full of mail, was engaged in conversation in front of the post office, Jones slugged him with brass knuckles, knocking him down,” Taylor continued. “Davis struggled to his feet and challenged Jones to finish the fight, whereupon Jones drew a revolver and threatened Davis with it while retreating into the post office building.

“The grand jury indicted Jones on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Jones contended the alleged assault had occurred on U.S. government property and the grand jury lacked jurisdiction. The State Supreme Court decided the ‘brass knuckles case,’ as it had come to be known, was not in the jurisdiction of the state courts.”

In March 1897, editor Davis filed a complaint with U.S. Commissioner T.J. Edwards over the earlier assault on him by Jones.

“Edwards was stumped,” Taylor wrote, “having no power to issue a warrant unless directed to do so by the U.S. district attorney [Jones]. He wired Washington for instructions and the U.S. Attorney General ordered the warrant issued. The brass knuckles case came before the U.S. Commissioner in Reno, who ruled that brass knuckles were not deadly weapons – perhaps because they obviously hadn’t killed Davis – and reduced the charge to assault and battery.”

The case would ultimately be settled out of court by Jones’ violent death.

“U.S. District Attorney Jones, although married, appears to have added to his other claims to fame a considerable reputation as a local Don Juan,” Taylor wrote. “Among his apparent conquests was a young woman whose family had repeatedly warned Jones to keep away from her. One afternoon, while talking with her in front of her home, Jones saw her father approaching and, for whatever reason, thrust his hand into his pocket. The girl’s brother, thinking Jones about to draw a weapon, shot him, killing him instantly.”

Today the site of the great theft that filled newspaper columns across the nation is a Nevada State Museum, where an original Carson City Mint press is still used to strike medals, and a display of coins struck within the mint’s walls can be viewed by visitors, drawn by the lure of the Old West. 

An original Carson City coinage press is still used to produce medals at the old mint, which is now a Nevada State Museum.

An original Carson City coinage press is still used to produce medals at the old mint, which is now a Nevada State Museum.