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Hoodoo half dollar

I like World’s Columbian Exposition collectibles, including the glassware, plated, ribbons, etc., and, of course, the coins. I knew also that after the expo ended, large numbers of unsold Columbian Expo half dollars were placed into circulation. What I didn’t know was that it was once termed a “hoodoo” (bad luck) coin.


The New York Times went into detail about this in its March 27, 1904 issue, and the story quickly spread to other papers. The forboding headline over the March 27, 1904 Times article reads, “The Trail Of Disaster Behind A ‘Hoodoo’ Coin: Whosoever Finds This Harbinger of Ill, Let Him Throw it Into the River.”

The article warned: “If you possess a Columbian half dollar, if you have been carefully pocketing it as a souvenir and can look back over a trail of inconceivable hard luck, then rid yourself of the coin and witness your rise into a normal condition of life.

“Somewhere in the United States this Columbian half dollar is dealing destruction—perhaps death.”

The article related that in 1892 there had been a little card game in Pittsburgh. “Charley” McSwiggan, “until recently press representative of the Carnegie Steel Corporation,” had for weeks been invincible. “Nightly did he clean the table, stake his friends with carfare, and then bolt for an all-night conveyance to his suburban home.”

In time, he journeyed to New York, where one day he stopped by the Sub-Treasury and purchased one of the new Columbian half dollars. “McSwiggan’s diary shows that from that minute his god of good fortune deserted him. He went to the Sheepshead track. The ‘bookies’ hit him hard. He rode on a Broadway car, and a pickpocket pumped him dry.” After which, “he boarded a train for Pittsburg[h] with a railroad ticket, a pain-racking hunger, and his Columbian half dollar.”

Several weeks later, McSwiggan was back in the game in Pittsburgh, but was “now the ‘easiest money’ they had ever known.” Every time he sat down to play, he was separated from all of his money except the Columbian half dollar. “Finally he said he had lost faith in his mascot. He played it in. Presto! He picked up instantly.”

But at the end of the night he redeemed the half dollar and took it away with him. The next game the sequence repeated—as soon as he was rid of the half, his luck returned. He finally abandoned the coin, which each player took a turn owning with the same negative result. Eventually, the coin wound up in the pocket of dead man named Jope, “who had been murdered, beaten to death, in the cellar of the First Avenue Hotel.”

Coroner Heber McDowell, knowing the coin’s history, put it in a drawer, warning reporters and others of its curse.

“For weeks the coin remained undisturbed. One day an old man who had haunted the Coroner’s office seeking jury duty was found dead in the back room of a saloon. That day the coin was missed. It was never traced.

“Where is it now?”

Happy collecting!

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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