Bill Dickerson -
June 30, 1999
Throughout the years, many interesting tales filled with history and romance have been linked to coins of the United States. One of the most notable is the one about Josh Tatum, who single-handedly caused the Mint to stop production of the nickel. The following story contains the facts surrounding what took place at that time.
In 1883 the Mint changed the design of the five-cent piece. In doing so, it unknowingly presented a great opportunity to an "enterprising" young man by the name of Josh Tatum.
Mr. Tatum noticed that the new nickel was about the same size as the five-dollar gold coin. He also realized that there was nothing on the coin to denote what the denomination was. The coin, which was originally named the Liberty nickel, would soon become known as the "V" nickel due to the fact that a large Roman numeral for "five" was stamped on the reverse of the coin. Young Tatum must have really become excited when he realized the potential which our newest coin offered. He went right to work and struck up a partnership with a friend who was skilled in the art of electroplating over base metal. Using a 24-carat gold electroplate, they were able to convert many thousands of the new five-cent pieces into what appeared to be five-dollar gold coins.
The stage was set, and being a man of action, Josh was off and running. He went from town to town, hitting every store he could find, purchasing five-cent items. Each time he would lay down one of the newly-created "five-dollar gold coins", the clerk would respond by returning $4.95 change. This was apparently a very profitable business, but as the saying goes, "All good things must come to an end," and Tatum's venture was no exception. After it was finally realized that the five-dollar gold coins were only nickels, Josh was quickly apprehended and prosecuted for his crime.
A very strange thing happened in court. Tatum was acquitted of the major charge because none of the witnesses would or even could admit that he actually told them the coins were five-dollar gold pieces. You see, he couldn't! Josh Tatum was a deaf mute and was unable to say anything. All he ever did was put the coins on the counter and accept, in return, the purchased five-cent items and a gift of $4.95, the "change" which he happily accepted.
Tatum's efforts prompted the government to immediately suspend the minting of the new nickel and change the die to include the word "cents" under the Roman numeral "V" on the coin's reverse. By the way, many of the original electroplated coins created by Josh Tatum are still available, and many coin dealers sell what has become known as the "Racketeer" nickel, ironically for a price of $4.95.