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Numismatic Folklore? 'Sprinkle Dollars'


I'm writing to relate a story that may be one of those curious tales which represents itself by accident, but for some reason only makes it to the shelf of good intentions.

Not long ago I purchased a coin collection that was not worth a great deal, but was well thought out and obviously provided many hours of enjoyment to the collector. In the deal was a box of old catalogues which offered hours of interesting reading.

The condition of the books was poor, but that made them all the more compelling because they had been in the hands of someone who truly studied and enjoyed numismatics.

One of these well-worn volumes was the Standard Coin Catalogue, 17th Edition, Scott Stamp & Coin Co. Ltd., 1893. Hardly a rare example for its time, but I was once again amazed at how much information was included in its 208 pages. This book alone could be studied for months to the advantage of everyone concerned. Its early owner even took the time to paste a fixed price list of United States cents (1857-1925) from F.C.C. Boyd to the inside cover.

As I was reading the Scott Catalogue I came across an old newspaper article cut out of the Toledo Blade. The previous owner had pasted it in the dollar section of the catalogue. With a little study I found that the Toledo Blade has been in continuous operation in the Ohio area since 1835, and with that let me quote the newspaper article exactly as it appeared:

The "Sprinkle Dollar"-Origin of the Expression in Washington County, Ky.

(Toledo Blade) Hardly anyone knows what the "Sprinkle dollar" was. Josiah Sprinkle, the man in question, lived in one of the roughest sections of Lewis County, Kentucky. Washington, the county seat of Mason, was then a thriving town. One day Sprinkle, then an old man, appeared at Washington with a buckskin pouch full of silver dollars of his own make.

In every respect they appeared the equal of the national coin. The weight was more than at present and the quality and ring were all that could be asked for. He spent them freely and everybody accepted them upon the assurance of Sprinkle that they were all right, except they were not made by the United States Mint. Upon being asked where he got the silver he replied: "Oh, it don't matter. There is plenty of it left." The inscriptions on the coins were rudely outlined, and in no way was an attempt made at imitating the national coin. On one side of the coin was an owl; on the other a six pointed star. The edges were smooth. The coins were considerably larger and thicker than the United States coin. Whenever Sprinkle came to town he spent the dollars of his own make.

At one time he volunteered the information that he had a silver mine in the West, but the old man refused to tell anyone where it was located. Finally the government agents heard of the matter and came in to investigate. Sprinkle was arrested and brought into court, but the dollars were proved to be pure silver, without alloy, worth, in fact, a trifle more than $1 each. After an exciting trial he was acquitted. When the verdict was announced Sprinkle reached down in his pocket and drew out a bag of 50 of the coins and paid his attorney in the presence of the astonished officials. Sprinkle was never afterward bothered and continued to make dollars until the time of his death. He died suddenly and carried the secret of his silver mine with him. This was in the early 30s and it has been 20 years since a Sprinkle dollar has been found.

I began to wonder if this tale was accurate, or told by the newspaper to be included in the "lost silver mine" stack of famous stories. Still the details in the article about Sprinkle's dollar seem to lend credibility to the story. The fact that I have never heard of this piece of history was not of much importance because I don't consider myself an expert in the field of exonumia.

I looked at the works of George and Melvin Fuld concerning tokens and found no mention of Josiah. Like yourself I have enjoyed reading Russell Rulau's formidable works on tokens, but could find no reference to Sprinkle nor was there any information in So-Called Dollars by Hibler and Kappen.

After dinner that night my old Numismatists were on the floor and I had a great time looking back at this century, but still could not shed any light on this odd tale. The following morning I called West Coast token expert John Boise and even John could offer no explanation. And so I forward this small event to you in the hope than an answer may be provided.

Who was Josiah Sprinkle, and did he really produce these silver dollar-sized coins all his life? If so, why have they not surfaced in so many years? What prompted the newspaper story, and did this coin have a particular interest to the collector who pasted the story in the old Scott Catalogue? Why has the Sprinkle dollar escaped the very capable hands and pens of today's experts? Was the newspaper story a hoax or are there a few Sprinkle dollars sitting in a forgotten collection ready to bring old Josiah back to numismatic life?

A reply from Q. David Bowers:

I have never seen a "Sprinkle dollar," nor do I know of anyone who has. I do have a few clippings on the subject and give them herewith.

In January 1896 the American Journal of Numismatics reprinted an article from the Boston Transcript, a clipping in the Wheeling (WV) Register printed a few weeks prior (apparently December 1895), referring to the "famous Sprinkle dollars," this account probably being contemporary with the Toledo Blade article you have as some of the wording is similar. The silver mine, located in the West in your article, seems to be in the hills of Kentucky in this version:

The person who put them in circulation seems to have had a private silver mine, somewhere in the northeastern part of Kentucky, near the Ohio or West Virginia line, the product of which he used as money, much in the way that the well-known coppers with the device of an ax, etc., were used by Higley, in Connecticut, more than a century ago ....

Not long ago a man living in Grayson, Carter County, Kentucky, received in payment for a horse sold to an old farmer living near the Lewis County line, $46, among which were three of the famous 'Sprinkle dollars' of the early 1830s. It has been more than 20 years since any of these particular coins had been found in that section, the production of these will recall a queer character who flourished in the early part of the century; Josiah Sprinkle, who lived in one of the roughest sections of Lewis County.

One day he appeared in Washington, the county seat, with a buckskin pouch of silver dollars of his own make. In every respect they appeared to be the equal of the national coin. The weight was more, and the quality and ring of the metal were all that could be asked. He spent them freely, and they were taken upon the assurance of Sprinkle that there was nothing wrong with them beyond the fact that he, not the United States Mint had coined them. When asked where he got the silver, he laughed and shook his head. The inscriptions on the coins are rudely outlined, no attempt was made to imitate the legal coin. Crudely outlined on one side was an owl, while a six-cornered star showed with more accuracy on the other. The coins were considerably larger than the regulation article, and thicker as well. Upon various occasions, Sprinkle afterward visited town and spent them more and more freely. At one time he volunteered the fact that he had a silver mine in the hills, but no one ever succeeded in inducing the old man to reveal his secret.

The article went on to say that government agents came to investigate eventually Sprinkle was arrested, brought into court, and after a trial it was shown that the dollars were of pure silver without alloy, and were in fact worth more than one dollar each.

After an exciting trial, he reached down in a cavernous pocket and drew out a bag of 50 of the coins and promptly paid his attorney in the presence of the astonished officials. Sprinkle was never afterward bothered, and continued until his death to make the dollars, how and where no one ever knew.

The "Sprinkle dollars" were mentioned in an unsigned article in The Numismatist, March 1919, which used much of the same text. Later, Farran Zerbe tried to track down further information on these mysterious coins, but was unsuccessful. In August 1929, The Numismatist included a commentary, "How to Pick Them Out," as an informal guide to spotting people at the forthcoming American Numismatic Association convention:

If you see a rather small man, prosperous looking, who you instantly suspect as being a banker, who spends most of his time inquiring if anyone has any Bryan 'money' or numismatic oddities for sale and in relating the story of the Sprinkle dollar, that will be Farran Zerbe, in charge of the Numismatic Department of the Chase National Bank, New York City, chairman of the Board of Governors of the ANA.

Thus, today these coins of folklore are as mysterious as ever.


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