The Mint Scene in 1858
By 1858, numismatics was a booming hobby. A strong demand had built up for scarce and rare dates in nearly all copper and silver series (but not gold, due to the expense of the face values involved). Key issues such as large cents dated 1793, 1799, and 1804 sold for several dollars each or more, and even the relatively recent 1858 Flying Eagle cent sold for over a dollar.
James Ross Snowden: Also in demand were half cents of rare dates in the 1840s, quarter dollars of 1827, and other issues considered to be hard to find. At the Mint, Director James Ross Snowden, himself a dedicated numismatist (and who would write two excellent numismatic books, one published in 1860 and the other in 1861), (A Description of Ancient and Modem Coins in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States, 1860. The Medallic Memorials of Washington in the Mint of the United States, 1861.) Â I was very interested in and proud of the Mint Cabinet, and advertised that he would give coins in exchange for Washington tokens and medals needed for the Mint display. He looked forward to February 22, 1860, the day that the Washington collection section of the Mint Cabinet would be dedicated in a special ceremony (and for which the Mint "issued a beautiful medal).
While it has not been suggested that Snowden made additional 1804 silver dollars, it is believed that he allowed the restriking of 1836-8-9 Gobrecht dollars, 1856 Flying Eagle cents, and certain other rarities. If these restrike's were not done officially, then, at least, he filed no objection to them. It is quote possible that th'ese were made for private profit of Mint employees, with Director Snowden looking the other way. This had ample precedent. In the past, until his dismissal for the practice (among others) in 1854, Franklin Peale, one of the Mint's most valued employees, used Mint facilities to create dies and strike medals for private clients. Chief Engraver James B. Longacre accepted private commissions for die preparation, as, for example, Dubosq & Co. California gold coin dies (as evidenced by die trials in the Longacre estate effects preserved in the Ridgway Library, Philadelphia).
Snowden proposes to restrike rarities: That Snowden considered it proper to strike rarities for collectors is evidenced by a letter from him, dated January 22, 1859, to Secretary of the Treasury Howell Cobb, noting that dealerswere selling "pattern pieces of coin, and rare types" at "excessive prices," and proposing "to check this traffic, and at the same time to gratify a taste which has lately greatly increased in this country, and seems to be increasing every day, namely, by striking some of each kind and affixing a price to them, so that the profits may inure to the benefit of the Mint Cabinet of Coins and ores which is the property of the U. States; an exact account of which will be kept and rendered to the Department" (Letter quoted in Newman-Bressett, p. 78. )
No reply to this letter exists in the National Archives, and it is not known what Secretary Cobb's response, if any, was. The letter does show that Snowden believed that profits from coining rarities should be for the benefit of the Mint Cabinet, a selfless position.
A clandestine coinage: Unbeknownst to Director Snowden, one or more people with access to Mint dies gained unauthorized, temporary possession of the 1804 novodel obverse and Reverse Y and proceeded to strike coins." (Expanded details are given in Newman-Bressett, pp. 75 ff.) The job was.an amateurish one. Apparently, the clandestine coiners did not have access to Mint planchet stock, which was kept under lock and key. Accordingly, they struck at least one coin by using an 1857 Swiss 5-franc taler, filing off the edge device, and overs tamping it with the 1804 obverse and the hitherto unused Reverse Y, creating what have been called Class II dollars.
Newman and Bressett present evidence that five newly made plain-edge Class II 1804 doilars were taken outside of the Mint, several of which were sold to collectors for $.70 to $75 each. In an interview in 1880 with then-director of the Mint, Archibald Loudon Snowden (nephew of James Ross Snowden), S.K. Harzfeld, Philadelphia coin dealer who crusaded against Mint abuses, learned the following:" (Ibid" p. 81, also the source for the Mason quotation.)
About this period [c. 1858] an old employee of the Mint, a relative of one of the first and most valuable officers of the Mint, who had charge of the dies in the engraver's department, was discovered by the sales made by an erring son to have taken impressions from 1804 and some other dies. On this discovery vigorous efforts were put forth to recover the coins, and it is believed that most, if not all, were returned and destroyed, and precautions were taken to prevent a reoccurrence of like error. Several of these dies were destroyed, and the balance--four or five in number-were boxed and
sealed up and placed in the director's vault.