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An 1808 silver dollar?

Recently I was digging through some 19th-century newspapers online to find references to U.S. coins. I ran into a number of stories on the 1804 dollar, all of which varied as to their assessment of why this coin is so rare as compared to others.

One of the most bizarre stories was in the Washington, D.C., Critic-Record of Dec. 17, 1888, about counterfeiters and the police pursuit of them. It was explained that a centerpiece of the collection of Hamilton Dission, a wealthy Philadelphia saw manufacturer, was “a silver dollar of 1804, during which year but six were turned out from the United States mints.”

When his collection sold at auction, the newspaper reported, the coin brought $1,100. However, before completing the purchase, the winning bidder took the coin to the Philadelphia Mint to be checked for authenticity. There, Mint experts, who apparently weren’t versed in U.S. coinage history, determined the coin to be an 1808, “which is quite common.” A huckster, according to this fractured tale, had taken an 1808 dollar and punched out the last 8 and plugged the hole with a 4.

“When this fact became known to the Numismatists’ Association it caused much alarm, and circulars were sent out to all the members in the country. As a result it was learned that eighty three members of the association believed themselves to be possessors of these six valuable dollars.”

Eventually, authorities turned their attention to Pete McCarthy, a resident of the Indiana State Prison North at Michigan City, and “one of the most famous of the latter-day counterfeiters.” This led to Pete’s wife, who was shacking up with Dr. Mason (a counterfeiting associate of her husband) in “a rickety, tumble-down cabin” on the outskirts of Neoga, Ill.

While the couple was away, officers broke into the cabin and “in the loft discovered a complete kit of counterfeiting tools” and “a number of genuine dies, evidently obtained through the collusion of some employe of the Mint at Philadelphia, were also there.” Also found was a counterfeit die for the 1804 dollar.

One wonders, however, how this tale connects with the Dission coin. The counterfeit die for an 1804 dollar can be believed, but Dission’s coin was found to have been made from a “common” 1808. Problem was, no 1808 U.S. silver dollars were ever minted. The Mint did strike 1804-dated dollars, beginning in the 1830s. Today, 15 are known.

Check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries and Myths About U.S. Coins for tales like the one above: